Thinking and pondering

John Oncken
Now Media Group

My meeting-going, farm-visiting and wandering about the countryside has been on hold the past couple of weeks due to a foot infection (the 'how come' and 'why' are a mystery) so I've had time to do some thinking and pondering. This column is about some of those thoughts and ponders.

Dairy farm numbers

A list of licensed Wisconsin dairy farms covering past years tells the story of dairying. It's interesting and documents the dramatic decrease in Wisconsin dairy herds since the number fell below 100,000 in 1960 after a dropout of some 4,500 herds from the previous year.

Between 1960 and 1970, another 35,000 herds left the dairy scene, and over the next 10 years, 15,000 more were gone. From 1980 to 1990, herd numbers fell from 44,241 to 33,290 (down 11,000), and in the next ten years, 1990 to 2000, another 12,500 herds left the list.

The first 15 years of the new century (2000 to 2015) saw a decrease of 10,800 herds with 2015 being the first year dairy herds fell below the 10,000 mark to 9.900. As of April 1, the number was at 9,601 herds, a drop of 300 licensed dairies in the past four months.

Production went up

In 1960, the average Wisconsin cow produced 8,270 pounds of milk per year. This jumped to 10,163 pounds in 1970, 12,331 in 1980, 13,973 in 1990, 17,200 in 2000, 22,630 in 2010 and 22,697 pounds of milk per cow average in 2015.

Meanwhile, the average herds size of a Wisconsin dairy went from 20 cows in 1960 to 51 cows in 1990, 64 cows by 2000 and 129 cows today. (Note: this means little today because of the increasing number of mega herds in the state. There are also about 1,500 small-size Amish and Old Order Mennonite herds.)

Dairy herd decline: good or bad?

The decline in the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin is a much-discussed topic. Some folks see it as a tragic event, while others see it as progress. Small farm advocates say many small farms were 'forced out' by some evil — but never named — factor or persons. They see a farm as dad, mom and the kids; cows grazing on green grass; and a red barn.

They also often suggest the dairy world would be prosperous and happy if farming was only like the 40s, 50s and 60s. My guess is that they never actually farmed during that era but maybe did visit Grandpa's dairy.

Other farmers saw a great future in dairying and traveled to California to tour the 1,000-cow dairies that have been around since the 1970s. They learned how the Dutch and Porteguese dairymen could build and manage these big herds, and they were fast learners. The secret was that you didn't need to milk your cows personally; rather, you managed others who did the actual milking.

One of the first large dairy herds in Wisconsin was the 800- (or so) cow dairy of John and Georgine Schottler in St. Croix County. They had moved from Minnesota in the late 80s.

When I visited them decades ago in the early 90s, I was surprised to see that many cows. 'We were quiet,' John explained. While John and his family appeared at fairs and ag events nationwide with their famed 'Milk Buds,' eight-pony hitch, few knew they were also progressive dairy farmers.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's dairy farms were dropping by the thousands with the farm crisis of the late 80s taking out the under-financed and over-leveraged dairies by the dozens. In 1988 alone, 2,264 dairies quit milking, and in a five -year period (1983-1988), some 9,400 dairy farms left dairying.

Others expanded

Despite the ups and downs of milk prices, many dairy producers have added cows and invested in their dairies. Many brought their sons and daughters into equity positions by forming partnerships, corporations or LLCs and grew their dairy cow numbers with business management as the key.

The trend to ever-larger dairy herds continues today, but there are some clouds on the horizon: the future of migrant labor is a bit of an unknown as national politics play out; consumer demands (organic, non-GMO, natural) are reaching the production level; and uncertain export markets are impacting dairying.

Will dairy farm numbers continue to decline? I'd guess yes. The math shows that 1,200 dairies with 1,000 cows or 5,000 herds at 240 cows could produce the same amount of milk as our current 9,600 dairies averaging 129 cows. For sure, dairy equipment, services and management will forever go forward.

It's something to think about.

The big mystery

It seems like school/education challenges are in the news almost daily: low graduation rates in some cities; crowded schools; not enough computers; not enough money.

Professor Milt Sunde, UW-Madison and internationally-renowned poultry expert (Milt died last October at age 94), attended a one-room school in South Dakota.

We often discussed, at after-church coffee, the big and unsolvable mystery among the many one-room rural school graduates even today (me included): 'How did we ever learn to read, write and add numbers when our one teacher taught 30 students in eight grades in one room?'

In order to shed a bit more light on that question, I went (several years ago) to an expert. Cleo Brockmann, Mazomanie, 92 years young, taught 17 years beginning in 1942 in a number of one-room grade schools in Dane county.

Cleo remembers

She chuckles as she tells of the days teaching mostly farm boys and girls readin,' riten' and 'rithmatic, along with music, art and agriculture. Oh yes, she also had to build the fire in the wood stove, fill the lamps (some schools had no electricity), keep the building clean and produce a 'big show' for the annual Christmas program.

We talked about bullies. I don't remember of any during my eight years in grade school, and Cleo agrees.

'We didn't have bullies, ever,' she said. 'All the students knew that if they didn't behave, I'd contact their parents who would deal out punishment at home. No parent ever doubted my word, and the kids knew it.'

Another subject much discussed today is the difference in learning ability and interest among children.

'It was no different 50 years ago,' she said. 'No one ever made fun of the slower learners. The older children helped them do their work, and they listened to all the other classes and learned from them.

'You know, the smartest kids in school were not always the most successful later on in life.'

But, she didn't answer the question of how we learned so much from a single teacher with so few resources. I guess it was a miracle — millions of miracles.

Every former rural school grad provides the same answer: 'We were all in one room close together and heard all the classes and learned from them.'

I always wonder if there isn't a lesson in that statement. Maybe the answer isn't more money, more computers, more technology, more administration.

It's something to ponder.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at