Looking, listening, talking at Dairy Strong

John Oncken

A full schedule of seminars and panel discussions along with 80 commercial exhibitors attracted a crowd of 600 (a guess) dairy farmers and suppliers to the annual Wisconsin Dairy Business Association’s, Dairy Strong Conference, at Madison's Monona Terrace last week.

Seminars centered on marketing, management and motivation presented by experts from a wide range of fields in efforts to uplift human emotions and dairy economics.  

But again, as many dairy producers told me, there are many suggestions as to how to solve the dairy price dilemma but no one knows how to get there. As is true of most every dairy conference, the networking (talking in the halls) was where most of the ideas and action were.       

The 20 minute sessions on the “innovation stage” were crowd pleasers.

Trying times

I learned a good bit in conversations with friends (new and old) and came away with the feeling that there was more worry and concern in dairying now than for some time. Milk prices and the dairy worker dilemma being perhaps the most worrisome with immediate major concern from every producer using Hispanic employees.

Labor challenge

I did talk with David and Mary Beck of the 1000 cow Beck Dairy at Allenton who employ one of the Hispanics who was picked up last weekend and became big news. According to the Becks, their herdsman was cited for a minor traffic violation and was found to lack a drivers license and insurance. Several days later he was picked up and confined. They don't know what will happen to their herdsman, his wife and children.

Green Bay farm reporter Mike Austin hears about dairy promotion from Beth  Porior-Schaefer of WMMB.

Other dairy producers told of how their Hispanic employees are very upset and worried and not traveling far from home even for groceries in fear of being picked up. “We have been shopping for them,” one farmer said.

Without any doubt something must happen soon on the illegal immigrant issue...but what? Producers seem to favor some sort of identity system with a visiting visa program – more or less as proposed by the American Dairy Coalition. No one I talked with has any idea what would happen if they lost their milkers – few have firm backup plans.

Too much milk

Again, the current oversupply of milk with accompanying low producer prices is a most challenging issue with no known answers. I did not hear any producer talk about cutting production.

“We have to pay the bills” was the common response given but some said their dairy plant was not accepting more milk so farmers couldn’t add more cows or increase production.

Then they wonder how the big expansions now taking place (the 4700 cow Tuls dairy being built in Green county as an example) could be absorbed into the market?


It would appear that most dairies are still surviving reasonably well and the lenders seemed to agree, sort of. But, everyone is afraid of the $15 - $17 milk many experts see down the road and what the futures seem to predict. Time will tell!

Hope springs forth

There was a lot of "hope” expressed at the Dairy Strong Conference: Hope for milk price answers and a solution to the labor issue from producers; Hope that some country (China, Russia?) will increase their dairy needs and import American products bringing a higher price for marketers and farmers. 

Duane and Tina Hinchley, Cambridge are planning a new freestall barn and four Lely robots this summer.

Even though most of the experts working on marketing are supported by producer money, many farmers wonder about results. They remember just a few years ago when exports were high and all was well, then the bottom sort of fell out and the “all was well” mode was gone.

“Milk supply and pricing is an old, old dairy story,” one producer suggested. “My dad told me about the NFO milk withholding action in the '60's – it didn't work. Now we can produce so much milk so fast the oversupply is even more serious. What are we going to do?”

“Now we're spending all our time learning how to be loved by consumers and how to appear on radio and TV – maybe we ought to make milk more drinkable (chocolate, strawberry with full fat) in schools,” another farmer said. “You'll notice that today at lunch most of us chose chocolate milk, there's a reason – it tastes so good!. What do school kids get? Low fat white milk.”

Some optimism

Angel Hebbe who was attending her first Dairy Strong event and I began talking at lunch. It turns out that she and her husband Chris milk 50 cows near Cambridge and are looking to a future in dairying.

The short story - the couple moved to DeForest from Appleton in 2006 where they were both working in a paper mill.

Angel Hebbe (left) and her husband Chris milk 50 cows at Cambridge and hope to get to 120 head. Anna Evenson, a senior at Cambridge High helps milk in the morning.

“We started with five acres and five calf hutches near DeForest in 2007 with the idea of raising dairy steers,” she began. By 2013 they were up to 120 steers and custom raising heifers, buying feed from Blue Star dairy that owned the adjacent land. “We were both working at Blue Star at the time,” she says.

In 2013 the couple rented a former dairy from Chris’ granddad, Roger Lehmann, which they purchased three years later and began milking 50 cows. They hope to build a 120-cow freestall barn and add two robots in the future, Angels says.

“We have two nieces and a nephew interested  in dairying with us,” she adds. (Note - the full story will come soon.)

Then there is Duane and Tina Hinchley, who milk 140 cows near Cambridge who are planning a new freestall and four robots by August. “We’ve thought about adding cows for some time - we are now switching cows in a 70 cow barn,” Dane says. 

“No one in their right mind would do this now - right? ” he asks. “But, we have plenty of feed (1700 acres) and our daughter, now attending UW-Madison Dairy Science, plans to farm with us when she graduates. Then some folks say ‘a time of low prices is the time to build,’ we’ll see.” (Another story to come soon.)

Dairy Advocacy Award

Sandy Larson of Larson Acres, Evansville, was awarded the DBA Dairy Advocate of the Year Award for her tireless work in promoting dairy farming in her community and across the state while maintaining a vital role on her family’s farm.

(From left) Sandy Larson, Larson Acres, Evansville, Rick Adams, Delavan, Mitch Bruenig, Sauk City, and Jane and Tom McClellen, Delevan did some serious talking at an unmanned exhibit. Larson was later presented the Dairy Advocacy  Award.

Larson regularly opens up the dairy to the public and is involved in multiple community activities. She hosts on-the-farm picnics for neighbors, welcomes students and other groups for tours, hosts dairy breakfasts and most recently hosted a farm-to-table dinner.
As dairy production manager, Larson develops employee programs to help engage and educate them about their role on the farm. .Along with her three children, she is also involved in local and county 4-H programs.  
“I don’t think I do any more than other farmers,” said a surprised Larson as she accepted her award. “You do what’s right for you, your family, your farm and your community.”

Annual DBA business meeting

Mike North of Platteville was reelected president of the DBA board of directors;Tom Crave, Waterloo dairyman was reelected vice president and Lloyd Holterman, Watertown producer will remain as treasurer. The newly-elected secretary is Amy Penterman, Thorp. Greg Siegenthaler of Grande Cheese was elected as the board's new corporate representative, with Crave and Paul Fetzer both reelected to additional three-year terms.

All in all a good conference. Producers got to do some listening and a lot of talking to each other and hopefully some good learning. But - few good answers to major challenges. 

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.