Time to Dairy Forward with Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin

John Oncken

My guess is that there were a few more concerns on the minds of the 1,250 attendees at the 2019 Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin annual Business Conference held last week in Madison than I’d noted in most previous years. Then why wouldn’t there be? Milk prices have been in the doldrums for too long (for over three years now) and dairy farms of most any size and type are hurting to some extent.

Most everyone is aware of the loss of dairy farms in Wisconsin last year — some 700 bringing the total to about 8,100 licensed dairies in the state. But the 600 or so farmers attending the conference were not thinking of giving up dairying, they were there to hear about ways to keep their dairy operation and themselves moving ahead in their chosen profession. 

Hall of Ideas

The 159 commercial exhibitors in 195 booths in the “Hall of Ideas” probably didn’t expect to sell enough to get their money back over the two days. 

The exhibitors offered advice and ideas.

“We want producers to know we support them and will be there when they can again buy,” was a common theme espoused by exhibitors.  

Several of the ag construction companies admitted they weren’t doing much new farm building but were still doing well in the commercial field. One builder said his company would be doing some major projects on rebuilding barns (not theirs) that had fallen during the heavy snows of a few weeks ago.  

Many choices

In addition to the Hall of Ideas, attendees had many choices among the five Keynote presentations ranging from Dr. David Kohl’s look at dairying from a world perspective to four motivational presentations centering on going forward in spite of barriers you have encountered.  

Then there were the dozens of specialty sessions covering a wide range of topics from: “Dairy and our carbon footprint,” to “The why in farm lending” to “The Top 20% - what are They doing” to “Managing stress" to “Dairy trends.”

The exhibit area was near empty while the educational seminars were in session.

The popular half hour learning lounge presentations again were well attended as 15 presentations ranging across dairyland from feeding to manure handling to the checkoff program were offered.

There were 36 different presenters listed in the program including Merril Hoge a former Pittsburgh Steeler running back, lenders, University professors, veterinarians and a host of company and organization experts. 

As several dairy producers commented to me: “There are so many good subjects we’d like to take part in but it’s hard to make a decision of where to go and what to listen to and there is only so much time.”

I attended a panel discussion featuring “Dairy Trends” offered by three dairy marketers who sell dairy products directly to the public.  

The old and the new

Adrian Bota founded Origin Milk Co. in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in selling A2 milk obtained from small Guernsey herds in the area. Most milk contains both A1 and A2 milk but A2 milk is claimed to have a number of nutritional advantages. A2 milk has found a growing market in New, Zealand, Australia and now in the U.S. The Guernsey milk has more A2, butter fat, vitamins and calcium and flavor which Bota promotes in his Origin Dairy products.  

The milk is not homogenized thus providing a cream line which many milk drinkers favor according to the company that calls it “a contemporary preference.”

Plenty of cheese for all.

Bota also promotes his A2 milk as “milk as it was originally intended, not an innovation, , just a return to tradition.” 

Anika Runac told of the short history of fairlife, the milk founded by Mike and Sue McClosky, of the well known Fair oaks Farm in Indiana. The ultra filtered milk contains more protein and calcium and no lactose and has found a national home through its marketing agreement with Coca Cola.

Fairlife milk is now sold about everywhere and is well accepted. Yes it’s 100 percent milk reformulated to remove the lactose and add to the protein and calcium content. And yes, some farmers don’t much like it because “it’s not traditional milk” which of course is falling in consumption. 

Scott Falkenberg of LaCrosse-based Kwik Trip says his company’s growth is in the hands of the employees “who do the right things, right.” And on their popular, fresh bakery products that consumers see as “a real treat."

I’ve long bought Kwik Trip's milk and wondered where it was produced. 

“We get out milk from about 35 dairies within 100 miles of LaCrosse,” he explained. “They are all members of either Foremost Farms USA or Plainview Milk Products Cooperative and we bottle and process at LaCrosse." Now I know!

Dan Monson of Agri-King had visited the bankrupt but now sold Lost Valley Farm in Oregon that had a permit for 30,000 cows. “It was a mess," he says.

The three dairy marketers each had different approaches to selling dairy products from old and traditional Guernsey milk to the high tech ultra filtered fairlife to the basic fact that it’s the people who make for success. Each knows their market and consumer and are on different but successful marketing paths.

Most farmer conversations center on cutting costs and farming cheaper without losing production. But these farmers, as yet, have found ways to maintain their business and family life. 

A common subject of increasing concern espoused by many is the rising cost of labor.  A farmer friend explained: “our Hispanic employees are being wooed by other businesses — landscapers, contractors, restaurants and the like — and our costs are jumping up as much as $2 an hour. I don’t know how we will be able to compete down the road.”

Good question with no easy or immediate answer. 

12 years ago

“Hi John” the voice behind me caused me to turn. “You probably don’t remember me but your column in May 2007 is why I got a good start in my new business."

Yes, I then remembered: Gene Vander Zwaag was just starting his Countryside Environmental Systems business in Holland, Michigan, that centered on providing washing machines and towels to dairy herds for cleaning teats in the milking parlor.  Gene explained that today his company has 250 customers from Ohio to North Dakota — with an over 6,000 cow herd his largest.  

Gene Vander Zweeg began his milking parlor laundry system in 2007.

Vander Zwaag had spent many years in the laundry business before forming his company and is now a Speed Queen distributor. Each farmer gets a new washer (expected to provide 20 to 23,000 washings), towels and a backup machine.  

Gene has now added a water treatment system (Countryside Water Solutions) to his business. “You’d never believe how much bad water cows must drink, our system makes the cow happy and the milk flow.”

I didn’t know what to think about the future of this new company in 2007 but it’s good to hear about its success.

Most folks I talked with hope milk prices do an about face but at the moment, hope alone is the only positive the industry has going for it.  

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747 or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.