2017: The good and not so good

John Oncken

Another year and another 52 weekly columns have passed by as you read this.  Hopefully you have enjoyed and perhaps even learned some things in the reading.  I know I learned a lot in the listening, asking and writing that went into the end product.

Looking back I found some especially interesting subjects (to me) and the people who were behind them. Here are a few.

The plastic “miracle”

For many years the use of plastic coverings for bunker silos and round bales has increased on livestock farms but farmers had no way to dispose of the plastic when the forage was fed up. Burning was illegal and landfills were expensive. Disposal was a conundrum until Revolution Plastics, a Stuttgart, Arkansas company appeared on the scene about a year ago and began a plastic recycling program.

Troy Statz, Marshall dairyman and one of the recycle bins he uses for the plastic to be picked up.

The program includes providing farmers with dumpsters which hold 8 cubic yards and 1,000 pounds, in which to pack the used plastic and the pick up service to haul the plastic away, all at a great price - free. It sounds almost to good to be true but it’s working and expanding daily.

Price Murphy, director of operations at Revolution Plastics explains that his company  has been recycling ag plastic tape and tubing in the south for decades, but saw Midwest dairy producers as a target market from which to obtain the raw material for their manufacturing process.

The waste plastic is picked up at farms, hauled to Madison in one of the eight big trucks for baling and thence to Arkansas for processing.The problem is solved and it’s free. Is that a miracle or not?

Millennials? The question

Over 1600 crop production suppliers attended the Wisconsin Agribusiness Classic to view 120 commercial exhibits and attend 38 seminars.

Three millennials (left to right) : Aaron Cole, The DeLong Co.: Anne Moore, CHS, Larsen Cooperative and Kristen Faucon, Growmark gave their views on a sometimes debated issue.

One of the the seminars “Millennials talk about millennials: What you should know about the evolving workforce", covered a subject much discussed and often not well understood. A panel of three millennials (born from 1977-2000) related how they got their jobs and how they perform them in companies with older bosses and traditions.

All like their jobs and recognize that agricultural businesses often mean hard work and long hours which they see as acceptable. They also want to be challenged in their jobs and suggest that managers must determine their work habits and be open to some changes. In contrast to the previous generation, this age group prefers an instant response to their accomplishments via E-mail with texting as a preferred method of communication.

I concluded that the millennial conflict issue may not actually be an issue at all. This group was little different in their desires and actions than I (or you) was when their age.  The young employee and the older supervisor must use common sense, listen to each other and be open to change.

I remember, as a young county agent in Clark county, along with a couple of adjoining county agents, merging seven individual county DHIA units into one Central Wisconsin DHIA  at Colby. We had to convince the local DHIA boards and county ag committees (all who were older, traditional farmers) who finally agreed that change was good, and it was successful for decades.

It’s also true that most farm remodeling and expansion programs come from urging by the younger generation (millennials?) who lead the way forward.

Gestation stalls as far as can be seen, 4400 of them.

Pigs and more pigs

It was the most hog pens I’d ever seen but then I’d never been inside a confinement hog operation - not because I wasn’t interested but because no one (except for employees) gets inside such facilities for health reasons: to protect the pigs. I and an estimated 800 people came to see the not-yet-open Blake’s Point Sow Farm at an Open House last February near Glen Haven in Grant County. The visitors were as awed as I was to see 4480 individual maternity pens, 600 gilt development pens, 936 farrowing pens and 600 nursery spaces, all built with steel.

Blake’s Point Sow Farm is the latest of some 65 such facilities scattered across the corn belt owned by shareholder farmers and managed by Pipestone System of Pipestone, Minnesota. The operation is big, high-tech and so different from traditional hog raising that it’s almost scary - as the son of a father who was well known for raising and marketing purebred boars and gilts across the state - to see.

Tony and Fawn Senn had many anxious moments over  the past weeks. Tony Senn says dairying has to change to align the supply of milk with demand.

Finding a home for the milk

It was early spring when Grassland Dairy at Greenwood notified some 75 of their farmer patrons that their milk would no longer be processed after May 1 - something that just doesn’t happen in America’s Dairyland.

“It was a tough decision on our part, one of the most difficult we’ve ever had to make,” Dallas Wuethrich of Grassland Dairy Products explained. “But we had to protect our other farmers and the company as the result of the loss of a liquid protein contract in Canada.”

The move was a shock to all of dairying as historically, dairy farmers have always had a choice of dairy processors wanting their milk, in fact, often competing for their milk.

After a concentrated effort by many people, homes were found for the milk but dairy producers are no longer as confident of their milk market as before. I recently visited with dairy farmers Tony and Fawn Senn and their family who milk about 145 cows near Beaver Dam and were one of the former Grassland producers.

“Yes, we were shocked to get the letter,” Tony says. “and didn’t know what we were going to do if we didn’t have a home for our milk. You can’t just sell a herd of cows at the last minute if you didn’t find a processor. I had hopes that something would happen as pressure was put on the processors."

The Senns and their Swiss Miss Dairy along with about 40 other of the remaining dairies did find a home with Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the Kansas City-based dairy cooperative. Problem solved for the moment!

No more rBst

Grassland Dairy was also in the news earlier in the year when it notified patrons that the use of rBST would be a no no after May 1st. This prompted other processors to do the same thus ensuring the near end of the long controversy.

Cheryl Zimmerman, Spencer,  State FFA Executive Director since 1993 sees continued growth for the Wisconsin FFA program.

FFA, a growing force

Cheryl Zimmerman, State FFA Executive Director, says “the state FFA membership is at a 37-year high with 20,800 members and growing. There were 15,000 members when I started in 1993.

She also explained that private high schools are now adding agriculture courses and FFA Chapters.

A final and sad note -  Dan Carter, Mayville, cheese marketer, owner of Dan Carter, Inc. and founder of the Wisconsin Dairy Innovation Center died December 19 at age 87.  Dan was an innovator and champion in his efforts to assist the small. medium and artisan operations and did so much for Wisconsin cheese and its people. Calling him a genius is an understatement. Dan was also a longtime friend.

As always, agriculture was again interesting and sometimes confusing i 2017. But, hasn’t it always been so?

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