Signs of the times

John Oncken
The red barn is much loved by consumers who see it as “a family farm” but its numbers are shrinking as farmers need larger, more modern barns.

“But, that’s not how we’ve been doing it.  We’ve never done it that way before. I don’t think that will work."

Those are phrases often spoken by people facing new ways of doing things whether it be in work or in life. For instance, computers and all the social media programs that followed have changed communication. The cell phone is literally attached to the hand of many young people (and some older ones also) and they are always in contact with someone, somewhere. 

Big changes

Perhaps agriculture has seen as much change as has any profession. From one cow, to a herd  to Mega dairies that came on the scene in the 90’s. The small “mom and pop” dairies became more difficult to maintain and the feeling of “big dairies bad, small dairies good,” grew.

That has not changed much yet today and is perhaps increasing as Wisconsin loses dairy farms each day, most (actually all, so far) are the smaller 50 - 100 cow operations owned by families that could see retirement and no successor looming down the road.  

Some people dislike large dairies - they are the result of change but still mostly family owned.

Rumors seem to continually float across dairyland that there are indeed larger dairies struggling with finances — but they are still rumors. The small farmer skeptics always suggest that “the lenders won’t let the big dairies fail.” That old saying was recently proven wrong in the state of Oregon when a huge dairy with 13,000 dairy cows died a lengthy and much publicized legal death.

The story

In 2016, California dairyman Greg te Velde built a dairy at Boardman, Oregon and obtained a state permit to milk 30,000 cows which would have made it the second largest dairy in the state.  

Over the couple of years in existence Lost Valley Farm accrued some $160 million dollars of debt and was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for environmental violations and manure lagoon overflows. In addition, te Velde was cited for a number of personal drug violations.

A milk truck leaves the Lost Valley Farm in Boardman, Oregon, Wednesday November 28, 2018.

During the brief two years of operation, the owner went through a host of legal maneuvers to retain ownership but the dairy was finally sold in February (by the bankruptcy court) for $69.7 million to the sole bidder (Canyon Farm LLC). Now comes the challenge of cleaning up some 30 million gallons of manure and waste water. The Oregon Department of Ag estimates a cost of $35 - $40 million in cleanup costs.  

The Oregon legislature is now in the process of passing new dairy legislation that “could make for the tightest dairy regulation in the country.”

An inspector samples waste overflowing barns at Lost Valley Farm on March 22, 2018.

Yes, it was a super mega dairy that was poorly managed and financially very broke and it was closed through the legal system, so it can happen.

If you have attended farm shows in recent years you’ve see the technology changes dairying has been offered. Computer programs and the still evolving social media have changed what and how farmers get and offer information.

“The World”

For 115 years the Holstein Friesian World was the “must read” for breeders of the black (and red) and white cow. I’ve visited breeders with collections of the magazine covering decades of Holstein sales, cow and breeder family stories and about everything that happened in the breed.  

I noted the changes in the magazine over the years: fewer ads, and pages and about a year ago an announcement that the forever family owned publication had been sold to another company that printed other breed magazines.

The magazine continues (I guess) but I haven’t seen a copy for the past year although I believe it has strong INET presence.

The first issue of the Canadian Holstein Journal appeared in 1938.

Magazines have had a difficult time in recent years and the “World” is not the only one to change. Meanwhile the Canadian Holstein Journal, also seen as “The breed magazine” until now is about to change. I saw this notice posted this morning (Tuesday). 

The end

"For 81 years the Holstein Journal has reported on Holstein meetings, shows, auction sales, herd dispersals and events that made Holstein breed history. Our columns also carried feature profiles on the leading Canadian breeders from coast-to-coast and their herds over the past eight decades.

"In the media business advertising is our lifeline. In recent years, there has been a steady decline in breeding stock sales and embryo sales at both the farm gate and through public auction sales. This trend has had a major impact on the erosion in breeder advertising in the Holstein Journal.

"At the same time, we are competing with the internet and social media brands such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. We are now crossing the line where the operating expenses are exceeding revenues. This dilemma leaves us with no alternative but to cease publishing the Holstein Journal.  We wish to thank the many loyal breeders and friends who supported the Holstein Journal with their subscriptions and their advertising over many years."

Bonnie Cooper was raised at Moss Oak farm at DeForest but has been the editor of the Holstein Journal for 41 years. “We are the last of the regular, all coverage, Holstein Breed magazines,” she says.

Note - Wisconsin born and raised Bonnie Cooper has served as editor of the Journal for decades. Her family still operates the registered Holstein Moss Oak Farm at DeForest. In a phone conversation today, Bonnie said she will do some freelance writing and eventually retire in Canada where she has dual citizenship and has lived for so long.

Yes, a farm boy

“Were you raised on a farm” is a rather common question asked of me?  I’m not sure why it’s asked because regular readers of this column would know and at my age, who cares?

Yes, I spent the first seven years of my life on a 240 acre dairy near Waunakee before my dad and his brother sold the farm and my family moved to an 80 acre farm near Stoughton where I milked cows, hauled hay, ran the combine, worked in the tobacco and whatever 

My dad had always talked of buying farms in the area and milking more cows after my brother and I graduated from high school. I thought this was a good idea, all I knew was farming. But, it didn’t happen. After graduating from Oregon High, dad told me he didn’t want to go into debt again after so many years of paying for both previous farms. He was only 15 when his father died and he and his brother had to buy the family farm and that was during the great depression.

So what do I do was the question? I luckily remembered a scholarship I’d received at graduation: tuition for two semesters at the UW - Madison. So, to college I went but returned to the farm every weekend to help my dad.  After graduating my cow milking days were done. But, my five great careers in agriculture had just begun.  

More later, maybe. 

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