25 years later: who knew?

John Oncken
A tall fiberglass Holstein, along with several calves greeted, visitors at the Sparta-based  FAST Corporation exhibit.

An enthusiastic crowd of an estimated 1700 attended the 25th year celebration of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) at the annual business conference in Madison last week. This gathering was in sharp contrast to the first PDPW meeting held in a smallish room at the Hotel Mead in Wisconsin Rapids in March of 1993.

I'm not sure how I heard about that get-together back then but I remember pulling into the rather barren parking lot and wondering what the event was about and if I was wasting my time.

There were 38 in attendance — dairy producers and a few industry folks and I think a couple of commercial exhibits in the hallway. I also remember wondering (and writing about) if Wisconsin needed another dairy organization, after all the Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, NFO, many dairy cooperatives, National Milk Producers, Cooperative Extension and others had been around for decades — all  working for the benefit of dairy producers.

Was needed

It turns out that this new organization formed 25 years ago, was indeed needed. It also turns out that PDPW has become the state's premier dairy producers educational organization, especially one based on high level business, farm and family management.

Much business is done across the table after lunch.

It also proved that dairy farmers would indeed pay to attend educational seminars, webinars and conferences. For decades “with free lunch” was the attraction to most meetings and conferences. The PDPW proved from the get-go that producers would and will pay for top level speakers and subjects. As many farmers have told me “you get what you pay for, free usually gets you not much.”  (Note: the 2-day registration fee for members was $300, $425 for nonmembers.)

Busy, busy

There was something going on every moment of the two-day event: Seventy-four speakers and producer panelists, 61 individual education sessions, four Keynote Sessions, 25 Specialty & Breakout Sessions, 15 Learning Lounge Sessions, 12 New Research Previews, five Hands-On Labs and nearly 200 commercial and educational exhibits. Whew!

John Ruedinger of Ruedinger Farms (center),  Van Dyne, listens at the Mycogen exhibit.

Add in the annual banquet, meals, ice cream and, of course, the talking among old and new friends and you have more than any attendee could fully participate in. “I only wish I could attend more educational sessions,” one of a small group of producers said as we talked. “And I'd like to spend more time viewing the exhibits, but, the days aren't long enough.” The others agreed.

There were seminars

Subjects ranging from “Advanced dairy production' to “Tying the knot; the ins and outs of marital law” drew crowds. I sat in on the “Dairying without rBST” session offered by Dr. Gordie Jones, independent dairy consultant and partner at the 3500 cow Central Sands Dairy at Nekoosa and Dean Strauss, partner in Majestic Crossing Dairy, Sheboygan Falls. They did not offer a simple solution to the average seven-pound per day milk loss when rBST is stopped — just top management.

Jones emphasized a few things I've not heard often spoken about: “Cows must never be away from their feed and stall for more than four hours a day,” Jones says. “Over 56 percent of the milk flow is not because of the ration; good beds make more milk; many free stalls are built wrong, they must be easy to get into and out of; sand bedding will add six pounds of milk and if the cow isn’t laying straight, something's wrong.”

Jones concluded by saying: “Everything you do has an effect (good or bad) on the cow and you can make up the loss of production rBSt gave.”

The economics of dairying

As always I spent a lot of time talking to producers and suppliers about the low milk prices and as always didn't find much doom and gloom from either. This conference is not where the doom and gloomers hang out.

Susan Barsness of Barsness Dairy in Starbuck, MN, and her son Caleb Blaisdell, a student at South Dakota State University, came a long way to attend the PDPW conference.

Susan Barsness came to the conference from Starbuck, MN where she, her husband Pader and family milk 140 cows at Barsness Dairy. “We're doing OK,” she says. “We built a new barn with a Double 6 parlor in the late 80's, we control our costs, aren't afraid to buy good used equipment and don't carry any debt. And yes, we did put put away some money during the high milk price years knowing that the price would go down eventually.”

“Our health insurance is very expensive but our great dairy processor, 1st District Association will shortly be offering a new plan that will really cut our premium,” she says. (Note 1st District Association is a cooperative based in Litchfield, MN that began operations in 1921.)

Lonnie Holthaus, Lancaster,  began full-time dairying after leaving dairy equipment sales a dozen years ago. His 300-cow herd has a RHA of 33,500 milk.

Lonnie Holthaus and his family have been milking 300 cows near Fennimore for the past 15 years or so. “We started from scratch and had to buy everything.” Lonnie says. “I had been working in the dairy equipment sales business for DeLaval and Beco for 20 years until I contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) and found it difficult to walk or stand for long periods” (Note: GBS is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. Symptoms include varying degrees of weakness in the legs.)

Lonnie Holthaus checked dairy activities at his Fennimore dairy from the seven camera views on his cellphone while at the PDPW conference in Madison.

Lonnie is the manager and computer whiz with sons Jeremy and Josh, a herdsman and six employees taking care of the herd. “We milk 3X (6X on fresh cows) and have a 33,500 pound herd average,” Lonnie says. “It's a matter of good water, good air, cow comfort and good management. He admits that because they have only owned the farm for a relatively short time, low milk prices are a challenge.”

My discussion with three construction companies brought the same answers: We are still building, they say. If dairy producers really need a barn, parlor, calf facility or whatever, they still go ahead. They want to keep the operation current and modern — you can't just stop.

A challenge

“The low milk price is a challenge to many dairy producers,” David Kappleman and Jeff Wilke, ag lenders at Denmark State Bank said. “We've done some loan adjustments and are working close with our dairy borrowers — it's farms of all sizes, big, mid-size and small. A dairyman can't control his price but we can help improve farm financial management."

Talk, talk and more talk.

It was a great two days for producers of all sizes, all ages and of varying management skills. It was also an audience of top farmers — that's the kind that come to meetings where there is a lot of learning going on. I remember well my days as a county extension agent in Clark county and how it was always the top farmers that came to educational meetings — those who needed the help most stayed home. It remains so.

Looking back, I didn't know what the future was going to be 25 years ago when I attended that first conference — now I know. Congratulations to the producers, board and staff of've changed dairying for the better.

You can get more info at and perhaps register as a member. Why not?

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

There was plenty of cheese available at the PDPW conference.