Dairy odds and ends: California's oldest dairy, WDE attendance over the years

John Oncken
Lot of water but luckily the corn is already gone.

This is one of those catch-up weeks for me and this column. No big events or earthshaking developments in the world of agriculture to write about except maybe for trade discussions that seem to go on forever and of course Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s words uttered at Dairy Expo that still wander through the internet. Words that seemingly weren’t particularly offensive to farming but caused an uproar because they were said. 

Oldest dairy

My daughter Lynne who lives in Fresno, California recently sent me an e-mail story entitled Giacomazzi Dairy at Hanford,“California's Oldest Dairy Calling it Quits,” and wondering if I knew the family. I didn’t.

A couple days later the color advertisement announcing the October 25 dairy dispersal that appeared in Hoards Dairyman was an eye catcher to me. California dairy dispersals of 1,000 cows and 1,000 heifers don’t often appear in mid-west based media, although Hoards does have a western edition, but this one did and it aroused my curiosity in light of the many publicized farms leaving dairying. 

Giacomazzi Dairy ends 126 years of milking cows on October 25 as the cows are sold.

Not that this was a really big herd in California terms but that the Giacomazzi Dairy, now leaving the dairy business, was noted as the “oldest operating dairy west of the Rockies” and was celebrating 126 years of milking cows, 75 years of A.I. breeding, 89 years of DHIA and was awarded “Top ten herd of Kings county six of the past seven years.” And, it was all going to end October 25th with a live at the farm and online auction. 

Wasn’t the milk price

Several internet stories emanating in California referred to the low milk price and bad dairy economy as “forcing the dairy out of business."  It seemed like an interesting story, so I made some phone calls. 

Wrong, wrong, wrong — it was not a forced dispersal as I found out after making a number of phone calls. Richard Martella, owner of A&M Livestock Auction at Hanford, says, “Oh no, they are not in financial trouble, this is a long established family with lots of resources, why don’t you call Dino Giacomazzi and get the full story, I know he’ll be glad  to talk with you.” 

So I did, and we had a long conversation.  

A decision made long ago

“No, our family owned dairy is not in financial distress. Getting out of dairying was based on decisions made in 2013 when we did a lengthy and deep review of the farm,” Dino began. “One of the important factors in our dairy operation was that our facilities (including a 26-unit flat barn milking system) were old and worn out and would need replacing. And, the dairy economics would almost require us to get bigger, maybe double our size.

We also looked at our long-term farm economics and found we never really made much money from dairying, meanwhile other farmers were planting almond trees and doing very well financially. After some deep thinking we decided that our land was not being used to its full potential and it didn’t make sense for us to continue milking long term.  Our first move was to plant 400 acres of almond trees in 2014 that are now in production and we now plan to plant trees wall to wall."

“Yes we are selling our cows, not because we have to but because we want to and with the rising milk price, this seemed to be a good time to sell our cows,” Dino concludes.

Note — I first learned about almonds in the mid - 70s when Doug Maddox, Riverdale CA, dairying's first mega dairyman (RuAnn and Maddox Dairies) showed me his almond trees. He said he raised almonds because when milk prices went down almonds provided a continuing income.  

Are the declining Dairy Expo crowds meaningful?

Expo attendance

A caller recently asked about the smaller attendance at this year’s World Dairy Expo. “What does this mean,? he asked.

Dairy Expo has issued a show summary since 1999 which I looked at and found: This year’s 62,240 was 3,000 people less than the 65,236 of a year ago which was 3,500  below 2017 which was 6,500 fewer than 2016’s 74,572 which was about 2,000 lower than the 76,572 hit in 2016 that was slightly under the modern record of 77,204 hit in 2014. 

Thus over the years 2014 - 2019  years, total attendance declined by some 15,000. But, crowds had varied up and down over the previous years with some over 100,000 in the glory days of dairying in the 70’s to 90’s.   

Bad news? Maybe not when one looks at the previous years 2003 with 65,125 to 2017 with 74,572, an increase of over 9,000.  

Going even farther back: the 70,950 of 1998 was the high mark for the next six when 2012 brought in 71,788 followed by a stable attendance the next four years.  

A Waunakee farmer was able to disk his well drained land in preparation for later liquid manure spreading.

On the other hand, I’ve often figured that the worse the weather, the higher the attendance. Balmy, sunny days may keep farmers in the field filling silo, making hay or doing some tillage and leaving the farm may be sort of a guilt trip. Rain and even snow might help convince farmers in surrounding states to forget about the field work and take a day off at Expo.  I do know I’ve seen that connection at some of those rainy, windy, miserable days in the past that ended with big crowds. 

I’ll admit I can’t arrive at a particular trend for Dairy Expo attendance over this 21 year period, except for a current downtrend, but that has happened before. However the loss of dairy farms and potential dairy exhibitor customers is certainly worrisome as the loss of dairy farms throughout the Midwest that continues and may continue even with a better milk price is worrisome. 

It’s the weather

Then there is the weather  making for uncertain harvesting and yields. At best crops are at least two to three weeks behind a normal year — if there is one — and feed quality and supplies are still an unknown. My guess — there will be some outstanding corn and soybean crops in some areas, shortages in others. Again the weather, rain, frost and temperatures will be the determining factors.

Who could throw away the “first pitch” ball thrown at Wrigley Field in Chicago when the ADA of Wisconsin was honored as a Cubs sponsor and I threw out that pitch? I can’t.

A move

Finally, in the past two weeks I’ve seen over 30 years of my life go into a landfill as “Got Junk” hauled away much of my business records as I closed my longtime rented Madison office. Why an office with a big house with space and no rent to pay, I asked myself? 

No need, and my son John who came down from North Dakota to do the hard work says: “Who’s going to read your old letters and papers?" The answer is no one, so most of the accumulation is now in my memory file. 

The challenge now is to find room for the things I brought home from the office to my also crowded house

Isn’t that life?  

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