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The annual Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin annual business conferences are (for me) a most enjoyable time. Renewing friendships with folks I’ve known for years and meeting lots of new people is a fun time indeed.

But, this year I noticed what I thought was a quieter, more thoughtful audience than in past years. It was a logical conclusion considering the current challenges dairy producers face on a daily basis.

Of course, milk prices were at the center of most conversations. Several producers said they were somewhat disappointed that President Trump had not fulfilled promises to get better trade deals (and prices). On the other hand, they had no suggestions as to what the president should or could actually do to enhance milk prices. 

Milking the cows

Farm labor is another “hot” subject, what with the continuing discussions on the national level regarding the many years of illegal labor immigration and what, if anything, will happen now. Not only is it the Hispanics that milk the cows on most larger dairies — many employees have worked on the same farms for many years — have married, and now have families. “Our employees have almost become members of our family,” is a common comment. 

And, no one I talked with had any idea of what they would do if their Hispanic employees weren’t there to milk the cows. Yes, robotic milking entered the discussions but most dairy producers feel the economics of remodeling barns and installing robots today is beyond their economic means to consider.

Milk markets

Just a couple of years ago, the thought of losing their milk market never entered producers' minds — there were always processors looking for more patrons. Not today!  

It began a year ago with Grassland Dairy releasing 50 plus patrons and just last week Dean Foods cut 100 or more farmers in several states.

And, the reports of milk dumping in the northeast and elsewhere run rampant and are scary. What are we going to do with the milk is the question?  

Dairy producers feel powerless.

“The dairy world is full of marketing experts and they don’t have answers,” one farmer commented. “They seem to look at the export market as the “white knight” of markets, but who going to get it done?"

Everyone agrees that national milk overproduction is the big challenge, but yet farmers talked of “adding a few cows” and I met a young couple who were going to begin dairying with over 200 cows in mid-April. 

“Yes,” national overproduction is the challenge,” a farmer agreed. But, the “close to home” decisions are based on our own farm survival.” (Think about that.)

Leaving  the barn

Look at the auction notices in the three weekly ag newspapers and see the dairy herd dispersals (mostly held in sales barns). So far they seem to be small herds of 40 to 60 cows, but rumors persist that a number of mega dairies are at the financial edge. A major ag lender agreed that was possible, “yes, big or small, when your equity is gone it’s the end.”    

Happily, most, and probably all, of the producers at the conference are surviving. How do they do it? The way they have always done it: through efficiency, making every dollar count and management. The same words contained in my dad’s UW Short course text of many decades ago. 

Learning choices

The 1,350 attendees at this years PDPW Business Conference had a choice of dozens of seminars and learning sessions to attend beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday with a choice of  1) Dairy futures and options, 2) Family business conversations, 3) Keeping feed clean and 4) Using data to better manage.  Two keynoter speakers, one, John O’Leary presenting  “the power of the human spirit” and the other, Professor Mike Boehlge telling of the challenges and opportunities in agriculture.

The afternoon continued with sessions dealing heavily with management improvement, with a bit of motivational encouragement thrown in. Dr. Mike Hutjens, a DePere native and longtime U. of Illinois, extension dairyman, presented five things a dairyman can do to make a buck.  

The evening banquet featured a presentation by former UW-Madison and Green Bay Packer defensive tackle Mark Tauscher who told of his growing up on a small Wood County dairy farm doing chores and milking cows.

"My dad said the cows don't care if it's your birthday or even if it was Christmas, they needed to be fed and milked. That was ultimately the very first team experience I had during my youth — being part of a family farm.... It's been such an amazing journey," he said. "But it came with its share of adversity. I blew out my knee twice while playing football. Fortunately, I was able to recover from both injuries and went on to have a great career."

More choices

The Thursday morning sessions continued with four subjects to pick from: a) dairying in China, b) controlling labor costs, c) making the family business work, or d) maximizing income over feed costs.  Then keynote speaker Dan Basse, the Wisconsin farm boy from Waukesha and now ag economist and owner of AgResource Co. in Chicago, delved into the economics on the local and world scene that impact dairy agriculture.  

The early afternoon featured short breakout sessions ranging from a report on the much-discussed, now studied, well water situation in northeastern Wisconsin to  a look at milk processor contracts and calf management. 

Exhibits

Meanwhile, the 170 commercial exhibits offered a look at and discussion about well-known and new dairy related products and services. Two items that were interesting and new to me were 1) an automatic calf feeder that runs on an overhead rail moving from calf to calf exhibited by Shane Schechinger of the NextGen Group and 2) the manure solids bedding distributor exhibited by Greg Lueth of ValMetal. The unit runs on a track above the cows and distributes the bedding into the freestalls. 

One goal

This year as in every year and the many farm shows i’ve attended, all the exhibits were devoted to increasing production, labor efficiency, lowering expenses and higher income through better management. Is it any wonder that milk production increases yearly? But, isn’t that what farmers do?

It was a great two days for producers of all sizes, all ages and kinds. It was also an audience of top farmers — that's the kind that come to meetings where there is a lot of learning going on. The 60 information seminars presented by 38 speakers offered something for everyone. 

Congratulations to the producers, board and staff of PDPW for a great two days. Looking back, I didn't know what the future was going to be 25 years from when I attended that first conference — it’s now 26 years and now I know. But 25 years from now? Who knows?

You can get more info at pdpw.org.                                             

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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