Dairy change: sometimes unplanned

John Oncken
The milking parlor at Four Cubs Farm burned in November 2017.

You probably remember the farm news that went statewide last Nov. 1. It told of the barn fire at Four Cubs Farm near Grantsburg in Burnett County. The fire destroyed the milking parlor, milk house and part of the freestall barn. No people or animals were injured or lost and all the 830 milking cows almost immediately found temporary homes in other barns.

I recently got to wondering what had happened since — I knew owners Gary and Cris Peterson and son Ben had announced early-on their plans to keep milking on the farm. Four Cubs Farm is a family-owned dairy farm that has been in Gary Peterson’s family since 1877. In 2011, the double-16 parlor was installed in a portion of the original barn.

A new dairy direction

“We are rebuilding our dairy operation,” Gary says. “And it’s much different than it was before the fire, we are in the process of installing 16 Lely robots with the first two scheduled to begin milking 120 cows in a week or two.”

A load of Lely robots arrive at Four Cubs Farm.

The other cows will come home as the robots are installed with the last of the cows back home by mid-October.

Not a new idea

“We had been thinking and talking about the possibility of moving to robots several years before the fire,” Gary explained. “The fire sped up our move to robots which will actually mean we can handle more cows — from about 830 before to 960 when everything is completed.” 

The only Holstein cattle on the farm today are dry cows and heifers. Animals from their heifer grower's farm were brought back to the main farm "to use our feed and cut our costs,” Cris Peterson said. “Having cows here keeps the barn from freezing too.”

Installation of the first two robots is progressing and milking will soon begin.

Today Four Cubs cattle are spread among 10 dairy farms around northwestern Wisconsin, and some of the farm’s milking crew followed the cows to their new surroundings. Some may stay there permanently.

Cris said in a recent interview with the Burnett County Sentinel that “having cows spread all over kingdom come’ creates a lot of extra work. Our herd manager is often gone to visit the various farms and transport cattle. We have to move cattle one way or the other almost every day,” she said, “because we do the calving here. Every three days we have to take cows to another farm and bring back dry cows.”

A widely known family

In addition to milking cows, the Peterson family is active in state organizations.  

Gary Peterson, the farm CEO is a Dairy Business Association member and is active in local co-ops and organizations. Cris Peterson, is CFO of Four Cubs Farm and writer of children's books about agriculture. She was named the 2004 World Dairy Expo woman of the year, winner of the 2002 Association of Women in Agriculture outstanding woman award and 1997 Wisconsin farm woman of the year award. Last week she was appointed to a seven-year term as a member of the UW Board of Regents by Governor Walker.  

In January, a new free stall to house the robots began to take shape.

Son Ben Peterson is the farm COO and joined the family operation after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1999. He also serves as the elected member of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board representing Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Rusk, Sawyer and Washburn counties. 

It would appear that the rebuilding process and robot installation will make for a long future in the dairy business at Four Cubs Farm.

Notes and quotes

It’s again an opportune time to present a few often asked questions by non-farmers and some maybe answers.

** Often times visitors to a June Breakfast on the Farm ask, “how can farmers be so smart to be able to run such big businesses worth millions of dollars? 

An upclose meeting with a cow at a dairy breakfast.

My thoughts — Most farmers grew up farming and learned from experience. Many have Farm Short Course or college degrees. Most all the top managers participate in Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin education sessions, Dairy Business Association meetings and UW extension meetings. They talk to each other and use social media. It’s all about learning and applying. 

In addition, farmers love what they do and strive for success with every day, challenge from weather, weed, insects, animal diseases and the economy.

**  A week doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t ask “how do I visit a family farm? I’d like to take my children and see cows and tractors.

My thought — As I’ve written so many times: attending a June Dairy Breakfast on the Farm is the ideal way to see, meet and talk with farmers. In addition, you get to eat a big breakfast and an ice cream sundae. There is a “breakfast” in most every county. Go to dairydaysofsummer.com in a couple months for a list. A suggestion — leave your cell phone at home and just enjoy!

Youngsters find eating breakfast in a machine shed with a big crowd of people is exciting.

You’ll have more fun if you keep your eyes and ears open, ask a lot of questions, talk to a lot of people and see everything. Bring your kids, whatever age.

** A friend asked, why did almost 500 Wisconsin dairy herds quit milking last year?

My thought — Low milk prices were a main factor. Many small dairy farmers who may have needed building remodeling or new equipment to keep milking until retirement a few years away, may have decided to sell the cows, keep the money and cash crop.  
Another common factor is no family member to take over the farm. The kids have gone to college, have professional jobs and can’t/don’t want to take over the farm. Some children may have always wanted to farm but were never brought into the family operation as an owner (and equity holder) and now can’t pay the millions needed to buy the parents out. 

Top dairy farmers attend meetings - it’s called hearing and learning.

Successful transitioning a farm to the next generation takes time and guts from all involved. Most of the states successful mega dairies include two or more generations.   So far, the drop out in number of Wisconsin dairy farms has come from the smaller operations of 50 cows or less. 

The drop out in the number of small ag businesses is also severe — long hours, hard work, labor shortages and economic challenges, along with no family member to takeover, may mean a closure or sale.

It takes a special kind of person to own and manage a successful dairy farm these days — be thankful for those who do.

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