Questions and maybe answers about farming

John Oncken
A modern freestall barn with the open sidewall  curtains and plethora of overhead fans aiding air circulation and cooling.

Over the many years of this column I’ve interviewed and written about hundreds of farm families and agriculture personalities while keeping up with the rest of Wisconsin farming for other things I write. Sometimes I find myself with interesting items and questions asked by readers, not extensive enough to make a full column but worthy of being written about.

So — today we center on questions, not all with easy answers. 

Mega dairies

Q? Why do some dairy producers have to milk so many cows and become mega dairies? That’s a question often asked by former dairy farmers or current “small” producers.

My thought ... I doubt if any of the mega dairies were formed because their owner “had” to do so. More likely  it is that the owner wanted to expand for any number of reasons. If they could manage 100 cows, why not 500, a 1,000?  

Traditionally cows were on pasture during the summer with cool days comfortable and hot days miserable for the animals.

My dad and most farmers of his day felt 50 cows was impossible for one farmer to manage. In the mid-1970s, I  first saw a 1,000 cow herd in California with a herd manager and realized there was really no end to the number of cows possible in a herd if one hired the right herdsman and people to help. 

Wisconsin dairy producers began traveling to California and visiting large farms and learning about large herd management. Soon we began seeing similar herds in Wisconsin as our producers followed the California dairy system and grew their herds. 

As producers built milking parlors they often realized the equipment was underused, so added more cows. Farmers also have egos and are entrepreneurial and see expansion as a way to satisfy both aspects of their personality. (Think of Sam Walton and his one store in 1962 and when he died in 1992 there were nearly 2,000 WalMarts.)

Farm expansion

Q? Will Wisconsin dairy farms continue to expand in size?  

My thought ... I would guess, yes, barring economic or other major crisis.   California surpassed Wisconsin in milk production in 1993 and currently (2017 data) has 1,331 dairy farms (mostly family owned)  averaging 1304 cows.   Wisconsin has 8,800 farms averaging 134 cows.

Fans and more fans on a freestall barn for air movement.

Sometimes life doesn’t seem fair but our country runs on the free enterprise system and there is no law against business growth and it’s not a new phenomenon. Many years ago my mother had four brothers running grocery stores in Madison, all went out of business when the super markets came to town. They didn’t think it was fair either, but...

Cow comfort

Q? Isn’t it terrible that dairy farmers keep their cows in the barn all the time, even in those mid-90 degree days recently, a city friend commented?

My thought ... No, it’s great because its cooler, no flies and above all  more comfortable inside today’s modern barns. Yes, many cows stay in the barn all day, especially the large herds. But, these are not just barns as we once knew them. All of the freestall and traditional barns have a multitude of huge fans blowing air from end to end (tunnel) or side to side (cross).  And many barns have water misting systems that spray a fine mist over the cows producing a cooling effect.  

Of course the  cows by and large, continue eating, drinking or sleeping in a fairly normal fashion. It’s called cow comfort and is probably much more livable than uninsulated, non-air conditioned houses. 

Many modern freestall barns now us misters and fans for temperature control

Meanwhile, pastured cows outside in the heat are trying  to find a shade tree to gather under. Flies and insects bother them and they are probably some distance from fresh drinking water and are not seriously grazing resulting in less milk.

Anyone doubting the value of a modern, well ventilated free stall dairy barn should visit one on a 90 degree day and see the difference. 

Stone fence

Q? Last week you wrote about a stone fence located on the Notstad farm near Cambridge, did you find out any more more about it?

In review: Jeff Nostad asked if I’d like to see a stone fence on his farm that has  been there since about 1850. I had envisioned a fence made of a pile of rocks taken from farm fields, as we sped off through several cornfields on Jeff’’s Gator. Wrong! 

“There it is,” Jeff said as he stopped in front of a section of neatly laid layers of slabs of limestone rock about four feet high. “This extends for well over half a mile and we’re not sure who built it or why or where the rock came from,” he explains.

Jeff  Notstad lifts one of the limestone fence pieces of the over half-mile long fence.

My reaction was “amazing” just think of the work involved in quarrying the rock, hauling it and stacking it and it’s still there! 

“I guess only a Norwegian would do such a thing,” Jeff said with a laugh.   

Since then I’ve done some research on the Internet and found out that stone fences come in many styles and formats and are found worldwide and have been built for thousands of years.  England, much of Europe and our New England states are full of old stone fences and are tourist attractions. 

This one is called a dry fence — no mortar was used — the individual limestone slabs (each about a foot to a foot and a half in size) were skillfully placed together to support each other and the fence.  

Stone fences, whatever the kind were used to keep livestock in fields and enemies out during wars. 

This half mile long fence on the Notstad farm doesn’t surround anything (like a barnyard) and there are seemingly no other such fences in the area. Thus, the questions remain: who built it, why, when and how was it built? I shudder to think of the work involved in quarrying the stone, hauling it to the field and building the structure.  And, there doesn’t seem to be a limestone quarry close by.

Today one could use modern quarrying techniques, trucks and end loaders to haul and place the stone but 150 years ago there was only hand labor, muscle and sweat. 

The questions remain unanswered but still interesting. Jeff will do more research among descendants of families farming in the area at the time, hopefully to get more information. It’s a mystery!

Milk markets

Q? As more dairy producers lose their milk markets, there is much discussion about building more processing plants — will that be an answer?

I would doubt it. Unless the new plant would be producing a consumer product that is or will be in demand.  

Dean Foods has closed a number of dairy plants because of WalMart’s new Indiana plant. Doug Leman, executive director of the indiana Dairy Producers says: “This is not a WalMart issue ... the new plant was announced three years ago and they had contracted milk with 40 farmers and three dairy cooperatives many months ago. WalMart will be a good marketer for our Indiana milk.”

When I was a farm boy milking cows, dairying seemed so simple, as years go by, the more complex that industry seems to become.

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