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Wisconsin's 1.2 million dairy cows live on some 9,700 farms, but there is considerable movement of animals in and out of the barns. In most every case, cows come and go based on economics.

Animals leave a herd for many reasons: decreased milk flow; declining health; too many animals for the barn space or the feed supply; being sold for a profitable price to another dairy producer; or for basic economic reasons based on profit or loss.

Most animals will be sold for slaughter and enter the food supply. Many dairy animals however are sold, in one of a dozen ways, and enter another herd with the expectation that they will add economic value to that herd, the farm and the new owner.

An auction is a very old and respected way to exchange dairy animals where competitive bidding determines the selling and buying price. Most of us probably grew up with the tradition of dispersing the family dairy herd by an auction held on the farm.

An auctioneer and his assistants sold the cattle one by one — often with the farm owner commenting on individual animals — that were milked one last time, loaded on a truck or trailer and went on to their new home.

A business and social event

A farm auction is not only a business event but often serves as a community social gathering with many in the crowd not potential buyers but friends or relatives of the farmer, and of course, the curious.

I try to attend a dairy farm auction on occasion to meet, greet, talk and get a grassroots lesson on the state of dairying and farming. The problem in recent years is that many (probably most) farm auctions do not include dairy animals. They are already gone, having been sold as a unit to a mega dairy or at a sale barn.

Attending a dairy sale

Last week I had the urge to attend a dairy sale, and the every-Wednesday dairy cattle auction at the Richland Cattle Center in Ithaca (a few miles east of Richland Center) seemed like a good choice. Bill Stade and his family have run this weekly event for many years.

Stade warned me that it would not be super big sale, and it wasn't (the week prior there was a full house when an outstanding herd went through the ring) — maybe 130 cows, heifers and calves from mostly individual consignors.

That was OK by me. I really wanted to talk with dairy folks — farmers, cattle dealers, truckers and Bill — which I did.

It's the milk price

Everyone I talked with mentioned two things: the low milk price (down about $6.50 per hundred on the year) and that to cope with the lowered income, they had to sell more milk.

'I sold two cows and bought one,' a dairyman milking 32 cows commented. 'I hope this one is as good as the one I bought last year.'

A family bought eight to 10 cows in an effort to get bigger, faster. 'Apparently they have the feed available, so why not?' an onlooker surmised.

A cattle dealer from Mineral Point bought eight heifers for two different farmers. 'I attend four to five dairy sales every week,' he said. 'These were good heifers, ˆI paid between 800 and $1,000 each. My clients will like them.'

Another dairyman said he brought a couple of older calves to sell. 'I'll need some money to pay my taxes,' he said. 'Would you believe that?'

Back to the barn

I didn't get to the sale barn until about an hour into the auction. Stade explained afterward that many buyers had bought their purchases and headed home.

'We get only dairy cattle that are headed back to someone's barn,' he explained. 'Many sales arenas also deal in the slaughter cattle market. Our customers know our cows are ready to go into the milking line now or as heifers that will do so eventually.'

The Richland Cattle Center sales arena is attached to a dairy barn, the former Schauf dairy, where cattle are housed, milked and fed prior to sale day. 'They look better after being fed here for a few days; they get a chance to settle in,' Stade said.

Today they had cattle from Green Lake, Walworth, Green, Crawford, Lafayette and Grant counties and from Iowa, and the list of buyers will cover a big area, he said.

'Many come from, and go to, family farms with small herds,' Stade said. 'We offer the opportunity to pick up (or sell) a cow or two that will improve their dairy operation.'

Always change

Things are changing fast in the dairy business, Stade admitted.

'How many dairy herds did we lose last year? Maybe 400?' he surmised. 'In 2,010 and 2011, over 13,000 dairy animals went through the ring here. Last year the number was closer to 8,000 head.'

He's right. The mega herds buy and sell cattle in a different way. They may have a buyer constantly looking for and buying replacement animals in groups or as entire herds from producers leaving dairying. Often, the bottom quarter (or more) may be culled and sent to market before the rest arrive at their new home.

For over 56 years

The Richland Cattle Center is one division of The Bill Stade Auction & Realty Company, 'a full service auction and real estate company serving all of Wisconsin and Northern Illinois.' They have been selling auctions that cover the gamut from livestock to antiques to real estate for more than 56 years (see stadeauctions.com for details).

I've seen Bill Stade cry many farm auctions over the years, from small farms with 30-40 cows to a two-day dairy dispersal involving well over a thousand animals. He is also at home with registered dairy herd sales, and best of all, I can understand him while he is calling a sale.

His company is very much a family affair: In addition to Bill and his wife, Marcia (who keeps the records), there are sons Mike, Tom and Pete and daughters Sue Schwab and Christy Schreiner, all who work at the Wednesday dairy sales.

In addition, Bill probably knows as much about Wisconsin dairying as anyone I know, and he freely offers advice to those who seek it. As to the future of dairying in the state, he is optimistic. 'There are loads of young people wanting to get into dairying,' he said. 'Many will do just that.'

Other dairy auctions

There are other private auction markets and 12 auction markets operated by Equity Cooperative Livestock Sales Association scattered around the state. Many have periodic dairy sales while also conducting market animal sales.

The Great Northern Land & Cattle Co. in Fond du Lac, which has been around since 1981, conducts monthly dairy production sales but is well known for its management of registered dairy herd dispersals and consignment sales.

Longtime managers Rick and Paula Bovre, who are well known in purebred circles, also manage on-farm cattle sales and offer a full line of services ranging from fitting to advertising to clerking (visit them at greatnorthernsalesarena.com).

The Overland Stock Yard in Hanford, California, is a family-owned business dating to 1939 that claims to be 'the leading dairy livestock auction in the nation, conducting dairy dispersal and dairy replacement heifer auctions throughout the Western U.S.' They are currently advertising a Jan. 19, 1,350-cow dispersal in Porterville, California. The same number of young stock were auctioned last week.

Yes, cows come and go into our dairy herds —always have and always will. Fortunately there's a reliable infrastructure to get it done. The sales.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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