Water, rails and an unusual collection

John Oncken

On occasion, I end up with more things to write about than this column will hold, so call this a catch-up day.  Here are a few.

Water and cows

The Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin bills itself as “Dairy's Professional Development Organization” with a mission “to share ideas, solutions, resources and experiences that help dairy producers succeed.”  And, as their almost continuous flow of sponsored  events — seminars, farm tours,  webinars and human resource and business management programs — might indicate, they are offering dairy professionals a wide ranging array of opportunities to help them succeed.

The recent  PDPW  2016 Food & Policy Summit brought  together dairy farmers, processors, regulators and allied industry professionals to hear, discuss  and gain insight to the voices driving dairy policy in order to more clearly understand and be a part of the solution.

Clean water

Peninsula Pride Farms Inc. dates to April 1, 2016

One of the presentations, “Clean Water, It’s Everybody’s Business,”  centered on Peninsula Pride Farms, a nonprofit environmental stewardship coalition formed April 1 by dairy farmers. Its aim is to leverage the ingenuity of the agricultural community, university research and scientists to meet water quality challenges in Kewaunee and southern Door counties.

Some background: this area of northeastern Wisconsin is the second-most concentrated dairy area west of the Rockies and has a lot more cows than people, according to Don Niles, chair of  Peninsula Pride Farms.  (Note: USDA/NASS  2015 data indicates 97,000 beef and dairy cattle and calves in Kewaunee County  and 20,600 people.)

In recent years, the issues of cows and cow manure; soils underlain with rock; and the fact  that over half of the county residents have private wells has led to heated controversy between environmental groups, residents and the dairy farming community around the water pollution issue.

How the water is being polluted, even after much discussion and research, is unclear, but the 16 CAFO dairy farms and their accompanying manure output is often cited by environmental groups. Meanwhile, local farmers more or less stood alone until Peninsula Pride Farms came into being.


“Farmers, by nature, are innovative problem solvers,” said Don Niles, a veterinarian  and partner with John Pagel at Dairy-Dreams, LLC in Casco, who led the planning for the group. “We can be most effective by working toward solutions in a collaborative manner.  We will focus on promoting farming methods that create measurable and sustainable improvements ... and will create benchmarks for continuous improvement for individual farms that take into account the unique characteristics of each farm’s systems and environmental characteristics."

Dennis Frame (left) and Don Niles talked about water issues in Kewaunee and Door counties.

The group also will provide education and outreach through on-farm demonstrations,  two of which have been held so far, for both farmers and the public.

“And we will demonstrate how the agricultural community is committed to doing its fair share in making improvements,” Niles said.

The organization has 43 members ranging in size from 60 to 6,000 cows, totaling 32,000 cows and 57,000 acres of crop land.

Penninsula Pride Farms Inc. was partially patterned after the well-known Yahara Pride Farms in Dane County  that is working with the community  to lower phosphorus inflow in Madison lakes. They  are also being assisted by Dennis Frame, former co-director of UW-Discovery Farms.

Yes, there are accusations that the new organization was formed for public relations purposes — maybe partially so — but without the impute and cooperation of the dairy producers,  the issue won’t be solved.

He jumped too high

Do you remember the incident last March at the Mid-America Spring Fling Horse Show when the American Saddlebred horse, The Final Four, jumped up and caught his leg on the top pen rail 8 feet off the ground?

He was playing with a friend horse in the adjoining pen, extended his leg above the U-shaped top bar, got his leg caught, tore a ligament badly and ended up being euthanized at the UW-Madison Veterinary Hospital.

Yes, the pen panel was 8 feet high, plenty high for the dairy cattle housed in the New Holland Pavilion at the Alliant Energy Center during World Dairy Expo — but not high enough for The Final Four to get  his leg over the top.  A “freak accident” many called it.

The state-of-the-art steel-gate type panels have a square U-channel top bar (with rigid edges) for extension cords to power fans, clippers and milk machines used at cattle shows.

Fixing it

Mark Clarke, executive director for the Alliant Energy Center, said the stall design was approved by both equine and bovine experts during planning for the pavilions and that both groups considered the U-channel to be a safety asset to protect nibbling animals from electrocution.

“Whatever we do, if anything, is not an overnight fix," Clarke said at the time. "That’s a lot of panels to modify."

This spring, at a dairy show, he showed me what had been done: 4 miles of PV pipe now cover the top bar and 65,000 plastic caps cover the screw heads on the animal side of the pens.

PVC piping has been added to the top rail of the livestock pens in the New Holland pavilions at the Alliant Energy Center.
Mark Clarke, Alliant Energy Center manager, points to one of the 65,000 plastic caps covering the screws in the livestock pens.

Hopefully, these changes will add to animal safety. As anyone who has farmed with livestock knows, strange, unexpected things can (and do) happen when animals, from chickens to horses, set their minds to it.

An unusual collection

Then there is Cari Stebbins, the young women you read about in my September column, who besides serving as operations manager at the renowned American Players Theater in Spring Green, is reconstructing a long-vacant and falling down 125-year old round barn near Spring Green.  Her plan: to make an event venue for weddings, reunions and such.

What I didn’t mention is that Stebbins has a collection of ancient letterpresses (perhaps a dozen or so) stored in the machine shed, along with her dad’s collection of antique Italian cars.

Cari Stebbins and one of her old, but working, letterpresses.

She learned about letterpress printing while in high school in California and obtained a collection of letterpresses from a Sauk Prairie newspaper publisher and had them moved by semi.  Letterpress printing was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 20th century, when offset printing was developed. In recent years, it has regained popularity among artisans and hobbyists, such as Stebbins.

Tables and drawers full of lead slugs used in the printing process came with the presses.

And yes, Stebbins will return to serious barn rebuilding soon — when the APT season ends.  We’ll follow her efforts.

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