Change for better (or maybe worse)?

John Oncken
The in-barn Jamesway manure carrier transported manure from the barn gutter to the outside manure spreader or to pile for spring spreading. It was all hand labor.

Over the 30 or so years that this column has appeared on a weekly basis, readers have often sent or expressed opinions on my writings. Like those who opine that all the ills of farming (low prices, high expenses, falling farm numbers) are because "big dairy farmers have forced little farmers out of business." They usually pinpoint a 40-cow dairy herd on a small farm of 80-160 acres, operated by Mom, Dad and the kids as the ideal dairy farm.

And that farms bigger than that are "evil, uncivilized, environmentally bad and are responsible for the downfall of civilization." Even worse, they are "corporate dairies."  You'll hear these beliefs repeated at every public hearing dealing with a proposed new mega-dairy, and in letters to the editor and articles in newspapers, magazines and on internet sites.

The McCormick grain binder enabled grain to be cut and tied in bundles for shocking and later threshing. It was a great advance in its time that ended with the advent of the combine.

Not so

It's a common and interesting observation, but not the reason why farms are ever bigger and fewer. (Note: there are indeed many corporate dairies, but almost all are family corporations.) A visit to one of the antique farm equipment shows held across the state each year might help the naysayers understand what has happened to farming over the years and how and why farms have changed.

Was there ever a "best era" to be a dairy farmer? Who knows? Some will say it was before scientists began tampering with farm crops, food was all-natural, no genetic modification, you ate what you grew and food was raised and bought local. That would be about 1946 and the end of World War II. Horses were still the primary "power units" on farms; hybrid corn was just beginning to be planted; vernal alfalfa was still a research project; and tractors and farm equipment were still of the 1930s vintage as the war had stopped any farm mechanization.

The Allis Chalmers five-foot all-crop harvester was one of the first widely sold combines in the 1950s and put many threshing machines into retirement.

Dairy barns were small, just big enough to house the average dairy herd of 15 cows.  Some cows were still milked by hand as electricity was still new and was used mainly just to provide light in the barn and house.

The industrial revolution had not yet hit dairying: hay was put up with a hay loader and oats were cut with a binder, shocked by hand (thistles and all) and processed through the neighborhood threshing machine. Most tractors had steel wheels with lugs, silo fillers and corn shredders were still the norm and family labor and an occasional hired man did the work. The farm family ate chicken raised on the farm and the mother delivered eggs weekly to customers in town. Oranges, peaches and bananas were a rarity.

The tractor-pulled corn picker enabled farmers to pick corn economically and at the right time.

The 50's saw big changes

While mechanical power had been around for 50 years, beginning with the huge steam engines and moving to tractors, all of which were slow, small (20-30 horsepower) and just developing as a farm implement, the 1950s saw a major change in Wisconsin farming. The grain combine became practical. By 1960, some 300,000 Allis Chalmers Model 66 All-Crop Harvesters (five-foot cut) had been sold, and in the late 1950s, the self-propelled combine came on the scene. Corn pickers meant the end of "bang board" wagons and corn shredders and, although the forage harvester had been around for decades, it did not come into common use until the late 1950s.

The threshing machine served its era well, but required lots of labor and time.

Power and automation

Power took off – propelled choppers, followed by self-propelled units, meant the hard labor of forage and grain harvesting was replaced by automation.

Even then, milking machines meant carrying milk buckets to the milk can. The advent of pipelines, bulk milk handling (in the late 50's) and parlors enabled dairy farming to get away from the limits of human labor.

The grandfathers of today's dairy farmers marveled at the great dairy herds of the day: Pabst Farms at Oconomowoc and its great show cows; Brook Hill Farm at Genesee Depot was milking 900 cows in 1946; and Wern Farms at Waukesha was also successful in the show ring and had door-to-door milk routes in Chicago and Milwaukee. All are long gone from the dairy scene, and their outstanding milk production was less than half of the Wisconsin average of 24,000 pounds per cow today.

Can you imagine sitting on the two-horse corn cultivator pushing foot pedals to avoid digging out the corn? I can.

More power, less people

A  team of horses could provide the power for perhaps 80 acres and a 1960 tractor would enable a farmer to work a couple hundred acres of land. A threshing ring crew of 1950 would require probably 15-20 people resulting in probably 20 acres of oats harvested at day's end.

Today, a combine with a 35-foot head traveling at three miles per hour can harvest 150 acres of soybeans in a day's time as semis haul the beans to an elevator.

How many acres can a John Deere tractor, pulling a 64-foot wide piece of tillage equipment at 8 MPH in a mile-square North Dakota field, work up in a day? A lot.

In the early 1900s, one farmer produced enough food for his family and about two other people. In 1960, a farmer fed just 26 people. Today, one farmer produces food for about 155 other eaters.

A modern communication device of the WWII era that was retired with the advent of computers in the 80’s.


Which is better? A farmer with 10 cows in 1950, each producing 25 pounds of milk per day that was put in milk cans, cooled in water in a stock tank and hauled to a creamery in an unrefrigerated truck, or the milking parlor of today with milk going directly to a cooler into a semi trailer and to the dairy?

Yes, there are fewer farms and farmers today than there were 50 years ago or last year. No, bigger farms don't force small farmers out of business. Technology allowing so much more to be done in less time by fewer people is one likely suspect. We'll continue next week.

The 2019 Wisconsin corn yield was 168 bushels per acre on 2.58 million acres. Compare to 1980.

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