Dairy farming is essential - for sure!

John Oncken
Cattle sales where top dairy cattle are often sold have come to a halt.

The media is full of stories about restaurants and a myriad of small and big businesses closing their doors leaving thousands of employees out of work resulting in unemployment applications running at a record pace. Then there is the run on toilet paper and some foods, even though there is no shortage of anything at the moment. 

When our nation has the lowest unemployment rate in history, people do a lot of complaining about working too hard for not enough money and having to pay for health care, college loans and retirement. But what is not much talked about are the farmers and agriculture of America. 

In recent years much has been discussed — pro and con —  about the use of immigrants on the fruit, vegetable and dairy farms of the nation. I suspect the discussion will get more serious in the future depending how long the coronavirus continues to sweep across the country.  

Employees to milk cows are not easy to find.

In that I am also in a “stay at home” mode I am unable to visit dairy farms and talk directly with farmer friends, so I used an old fashioned telephone to see how dairy farmer friends were doing during these tumultuous times.  

Larson Acres - 2400 cows

Sandy Larson Trustem is one of the many Larson family members who milk 2,400 cows at Larson Acres at Evansville. 

“We’re still doing O.K.,”  she says. “We’ve talked with our 70 employees emphasizing that they should also stay home while not working and to go home if they are sick, personal cleanliness and staying away from crowds. We’ve put up reminder signs around the farm showing appreciation for the work the employees are doing.  

"We are also continuing and increasing our disinfectant program in the barns and milking parlor. The only visitors are those involving delivery of farm supplies," Trustem continued. 

"And, I feel bad for my children,” Sandy continues. “One who is graduating from the UW-Madison College of Agriculture, one from UW-Madison Farm & Industry Short Course and one from high school. It looks like none of them will have the honor and joy of a graduation ceremony. 

"All in all, the farm is going along fairly normal,” she says, “The biggest challenge so far is the anxiety and the unknown future."

Larson Acres, Evansville is one of the most visited dairy farms in Wisconsin.

Keeping healthy

Jim Winn, one of three partners who own and operates the 2,000 cow Cottonwood Dairy near Wiota, says their biggest effort is devoted to keeping the families and employees healthy. 

“My number one concern is the uncertainty of the future,” Winn begins. "I keep hearing about the possibility of dumping milk, but am not sure where that comes from. And the falling milk prices are scary." 

“I’m always proud to have my thumb on everything including all the dairy herd challenges but feel powerless in the current coronavirus epidemic. There are no simple or easy answers,” Winn concludes.

It’s scary

Mitch Breunig and his family milk some 450 cows in Sauk County and he admits he is scared as the coronavirus continues. 

”We met with our employees and explained the situation,” he says. "I called the DBA (Dairy Business Association) for help with an employee letter explaining what to do if they got sick. I also made sure we had a sufficient inventory of dairy supplies and feed in case deliveries got slow.  

Mitch Breunig, of Mystic Valley dairy, feels there may be scary times ahead.

“An important part of Mystic Valley’s dairy business is the sale of genetics and two important dairy sales at the Great Northern were canceled and we had animals consigned in both sales. That was a big loss,” Breunig says. 

“I am scared,” he admits. “Just look at all the restaurants that have closed, and the big business conferences and meetings in Wisconsin and across the country that canceled and the schools – all closed. I've read that just recently food service used more milk than do homes — just think of the big loss in milk sales!”

Breunig explained that he did do something for the first time, “I bought into the new Dairy Revenue Protection Program and am really glad I did. At first I thought it was too expensive but it’s great if the milk price drops."  

Business as usual

Jeff and Kate Hendrickson milk 80 registered Holsteins on their family dairy near Belleville. Their only employees are family members (son Brook) so they are not dealing with the challenges of Hispanic employees and families. 

“So far it’s pretty much business as usual with us other than having concerns about the falling milk price and the future of the dairy business as restaurants are closed and meetings not held."      

Jeff Hendrickson is also concerned about the dairy market. Here he is joined by his daughter Brianna who was named Wisconsin Junior Holstein Girl in 2014.

I’d guess most dairy families would express opinions similar to those offered by Winn, Trustem, Breunig and Hendrickson.  All still milk as pretty much normal (what else would you do?) but all concerned about the future. Yes, you might say, but what about the non-farmers who lost their jobs?  Sad, but if a farm didn’t have a milk market they not only might lose a job AND a million or $10 million dollars. It also could mean less food — a story for another day.

UW campus Dairy Cattle Center empty

A few days ago, I read a UW-Madison Dairy Science Department news release that seemed interesting. An edited version reads:

“In just a few weeks, there have been many changes on the UW–Madison campus — in-person classes have been replaced with distance learning and nearly all faculty, staff and students are working remotely ... Under these extraordinary circumstances, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has closed campus’ Dairy Cattle Center (DCC) for up to 60 days, effective Friday, March 27.

Dr. Kent Weigel, Chair of the UW-Madison Dept. of animal and dairy sciences explains that the cows are gone from the Madison Dairy Center.

"Without students on campus or significant research being conducted in the DCC, and in anticipation of possible labor shortages due to COVID-19 illness, it was a straightforward choice to temporarily close the campus facility and consolidate our herd at our agricultural research stations,” says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Science.

The final milking occurred on Friday, March 27. I was curious about the how’s of moving the cows so emailed a couple of questions that were promptly and expertly answered by Weigel.

Q: I assume the cows in Madison were moved to Arlington. Right?

A: The campus, Arlington, and Marshfield herds are all integrated, so cows move between those locations relatively freely (well, not on their own, we have to truck them).  We moved most of the cows to Arlington, and some were sold. We had already sold 55 cows over the past couple weeks, since students went home and classes were moved online, and since we began scaling down our research projects.

Q: How many were moved? 

A: There are 84 stalls at the Dairy Cattle Center (DCC), and as of decision time last Wednesday, we had 56 cows remaining at the DCC. Forty-two were moved to Arlington, and the other 14 were culled. In order to make more space at Arlington, we moved 16 cows from that location to Marshfield.” 

Thanks, Kent. Not a major issue but now I know.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail,com