Farms can change

John Oncken

Recently I noted an interesting posting on the web site that caught my attention. It was written by a former dairy farmer I had known over the years but hadn’t seen for some time, and his subject was not about cows, rather about red flour beetles.

Here is his email.

“I want to report that we have successfully killed all the red flour beetles that were in the barley. This is how we accomplished this organic grain miracle...

“I searched high and low and found other countries had articles and research tuned into this topic. An interesting thesis was done by Daniel Delmar Mann from the University of Manitoba. This is published in book form titled, "Fumigation of Stored Grain with Carbon Dioxide."

Since we had an oxygen limited silo (Harvestore), our investment was nil our plan was to combine 3 bins into one common unit. The discharge into the Harvestore was calibrated and we ordered the dry ice.

We had 1,300 lbs to start, and felt we used it up faster than planned so got an extra 200 lbs 'just to make sure.'  Since I didn't have any way to monitor concentrations, I most likely over applied.  But at 75 cents a pound, the 1300 lb original order ($975.00) spread over 9000 bushels was only 11 cents a bushel. In the scheme of things a nothing expense since it costs me 10 cents a bushel to move a bushel of anything. The application rate was 3# dry ice for every 1000# barley. We dumped a measured amount into the auger stream every 5 minutes. We added extra into our calculations to purge oxygen from the headspace above the grain 

The financial implication is huge. To have $10.00 malting barley as opposed to $6.50 for feed, there is a $31,500 return for $975 spent.  That makes a 3000% ROI ... Paul Bickford, Bickford Organics, Ridgeway, WI.

What was behind this short comment, I was certainly curious. So, I visited Paul at his farm just west of Ridgeway in Iowa County to find out.

Big dairying

In the late 1970s, Melvin Bickford and his son, Paul, combined their dairy herds and relocated Prairie du Sac to Ridgeway — as Bickford Farms — where they had built a new set of buildings.

“We had thousands of people come to our open house to see the Germania equipped milking parlor,” Paul remembered.

Rolf Reisgies, inventor and then owner of Germania who lives in Rhinelander and operates Tech for Ag where he rebuilds and sells Germania equipment, remembers the event: “We were absolutely astounded at the crowd; we couldn’t believe it. It was one our first open houses.”

Bickford Farms was milking over 300 cows making it one of the biggest dairies in the state.

The Harvestore on the right held the barley that was treated with carbon dioxide.

Rotational grazing

In the early 1990s, Paul converted the confinement set-up to a pasture-based system that involved reconfiguring the operation by adding fencing, making lanes for cattle and machinery and providing water for the cattle. A milking parlor was also built in a pasture for summer milking, and the herd increased to 750 head.

Spelt is a 5,000-year-old grain that looks much like wheat but is more difficult to hull.

In the early 2000s, the dairy herd began showing signs of nervousness and weren’t doing well.

“I had heard about stray voltage but knew little about it," Paul said. "The cows would go up and down in milk, and we didn’t know what to do. Thus began an eight-year battle (including a court case) with stray voltage that was never solved."

Bickford Organics has alfalfa balage for sale.

Moving to organic

Bickford Farms is now Bickford Organics.

The dairy cattle were sold in 2011, and the farm moved to organic grain and hay production. It was certified organic on 600 acres in 2012, and today, there are 900 acres of corn, soybeans, barley, oats and alfalfa.

His grain is marketed to brokerages, including Organic Valley and Cashton Farm Supply, and directly to dairy and livestock farmers and small  farmers who feed their livestock to produce meat they market to consumers.

Organic land must go through a three-year transition period during which no chemical fertilizers or pesticides can be used, but the crop can’t be sold as organic. During transition, farmers can experience the double blow of lower yields without access to the organic premium.

Bickford said his transition period came during the years of high grain prices, which helped in the move away from dairying to organic. He also said his plan was to produce food-grade products rather than commodities for the higher price.

Spelt has found favor in flour because of  its lower gluten content.


Organic farming presents different and often challenging obstacles. One is the restricted use of pesticides and herbicides; thus organic farmers must rely on cultivation, cover crops, crop rotations and mechanical weed control.

“You have to learn how to farm all over again,” Bickford said.

Another challenge in organic farming is the unavailability of daily price reports like the Chicago Board of Trade or the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Most crops are traded privately, and farmers obtain price information by calling elevators, mills and other farmers.


Although many organic dairy farmers are in need of extra organic grains, price is always a factor. Imports of feed grains has negatively impacted the price of locally produced organic corn in the past two years with many bushels still unsold and in storage. USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, in a Jan. 26, 2016 report, stated, “As organic production in Turkey grows, so too do the concerns about fraudulent organic products and lack of inspections.

Paul Bickford has moved from dairying to organic cash grains.

Paul Bickford blames the negotiations leading to the import agreements. “Although we must follow many rules and document every load of grain we sell, we’re not sure the grain coming from Turkey and Romania is really organic,” he said. "We do know that it comes a long way, by ship, and sells cheaper than U.S. grain. Perhaps President Trump will be a better negotiator," he wonders.

Finding an assistant

A couple of years ago, Paul Bickford realized he needed management help on his 900-acre operation and, like many farmers, didn’t have a family member ready to step in. “I began looking for an assistant manager or a real smart hired man,” he said. “I placed an ad on Craig's List.”

Meanwhile, John Wepking, a Lancaster, Wisconsin-raised farm boy with a master's degree in urban planning who had worked in New York City evaluating property during the recession and was now a chef, was considering his future — as was his wife, Halee, also a chef.

The Wepkings decided that a return to small-town Wisconsin was the best move for them and answered Bickford’s ad. To make a long story short, Paul has had an assistant and crop manager for a year and a half; John has returned to the land and a future (he and Paul have a 10-year succession arrangement); and the Wepkings and Paul Bickford are looking at marketing organic products, such as specialty grains, locally.

Then there is the Ridgeway interchange off US 151/18 planned for next year that will take 50 acres of his farm. “That’s a lot of acreage to lose,” he said.

John and Kaylee Wepking and 15-month-old Henry left the big city for farm life.

He’ll handle it

My guess is that Paul Bickford will figure it out; he’s done it before: large dairy herd, rotational grazing, organic farming, using carbon dioxide to kill beetles and finding a farm assistant on Craig’s List. What’s next? Who knows, but this farmer will handle it.

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