Making policy and making milk

John Oncken
Trying to listen after a big meal.

An estimated 240 dairy farmers and their suppliers attended the four “Policy Picnics” sponsored by Wisconsin Dairy Business Association (DBA) and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative held over a two-day period on dairy farms across the state last week.

Each policy picnic included a meal and briefing on state and federal issues impacting the dairy industry. “Our picnics are a great way for us to share what we’re working on with members and get their input and thoughts on different policies,“ the DBA says.

I attended the event held at ToldYaSo Holsteins owned by Nick & Maria Woldt at Marshall on July 17—a warmish 90 plus degree day made livable by big fans directing air into the temporary tent and big garage where the gathering was held.

The budget

John Holevoet and Chad Zulegar of DBA discussed the pluses of the recently passed state budget: They called the $8.8 million in two-year funding of the planned Dairy Innovative Hub focusing on broadly-defined innovative dairy research at the UW-Madison, Platteville and River Falls “a big win for dairy.” The research will center on the areas of land and water resources, human health and nutrition, animal health and nutrition and growing."

John Holevoet, DBA director of government affairs tell about the new Wisconsin Dairy Innovation Hub.

Another win for farmers in the new budget, according to the two lobbyists, was increased funding for farmer organized and led conservation groups that have sprung up across the state. The Governor’s proposal for increased CAFO fees that was opposed by the DBA was pulled out of the budget and along with drivers permits for immigrants, dairy processor grants and export funding remain up for discussion.


Some history: Wisconsin Dairy Business Association dates to the late 90’s when a group of progressive dairy producers and dairy industry representatives sought a way to represent the dairy industry on local, state and national levels. The result was the formation of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association (DBA) in 2000.

The organization claims to have has since become the most effective dairy lobbying organization in the state and serves as a resource for members facing critical challenges. The DBA has over 650 members (farmers, industry and other suppliers)  representing some 250,000 dairy cows that work together for the advancement of the dairy industry.

Testing milk and lobbying

A sister organization, Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, founded in 2010 as the Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative, has advanced to be one of the top cooperatives in the country in terms of milk volume represented. Edge offers 1) Federal representation on dairy-related policy issues; 2) Verification of milk and milk components at testing laboratories in accordance with the Federal Milk Marketing Orders: 3) Bulk tank calibrations to ensure accurate milk weights and market information and news impacting the dairy community. Mike Torrey from Michael Torrey Assoc., Washington D.C. represents the cooperative on the national level.

After an hour of discussion it was again apparent how complicated governmental policy-making is and the importance of staying connected can be. DBA serves as the representative of their members who do not have the time to work with the legislature on an ongoing basis.

Maria and Nick Woldt, were event hosts on their dairy farm.

The policy picnic at Marshall was only a few miles from my home but I did not know of ToldYaSo Holsteins, the event’s host farm. I did know Maria Woldt, DBA director of member communications and events who introduced me to her husband Nick who is the active dairyman in the family. We arranged to meet at the dairy (about a mile from the family home and onetime dairy buildings) the next day.

A city boy

The dairy farm does not fit the common perception of many Wisconsin farms. Nick Woldt was not raised on a dairy farm. “I was a city boy who visited my stepdad’s relatives at Loganville during the summer and fell in love with dairying,” Nick says.  After graduating from high school in 1995, he attended the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course where he become an "information sponge”.

Woldt then worked for the Dean Manthe heifer growing farm near DeForest for five years but began looking for a way to have his own dairy operation. “I got acquainted with Roger and Becky Weisensel who were looking to retire from milking at their farm near Sun Prairie and worked for them for two years before arriving at a rental agreement.”

Nick Woldt is a city boy who learned how to own a dairy.

Renting the barn

The result of the agreement allowed Nick to rent the barn and other dairy buildings in November 2003 and begin buying the cows over a period of several years. He currently buys the feed from Roger Weisensel who continues to farm the 200-acre farm. “I have bought a minimum of equipment—a tractor, TMR mixer and a corn storage bin,” Woldt says. “Just the basics needed to maintain the dairy.”

The cows are housed in a freestall barn and fed in an outside manger filled directly from the mobil TMR mixer pulled by his tractor. The 55 milk cows (28,000 RHA) are milked in the 29 stanchion dairy barn, meaning there is one switch at each milking. The milk is marketed through Monroe-based Rolling Hills Dairy Producers Cooperative.

A few cows braved the heat to eat at the outdoor manger.

The other half of the dairy team, Maria Woldt, hails from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She graduated from the UW-River Falls and came to Madison seeking a Masters degree. She worked at World Dairy Expo and in the UW-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences office.

As luck would have it, Maria and Nick met at a Wisconsin Farm Bureau meeting and were married five years ago. Today they are the parents of a two year old daughter, Lexi. Maria now works as the DBA director of member communications and events and works at home, at the Green Bay office and on the road. She organized the four policy-picnics last week.

Doing well

“How are you getting along in this era of low milk prices?” I asked Nick.

“In addition to the cows, I raise all our bull calves (and those of a neighbor) as steers to 500-600 pounds when they are sold,” he explained. "I don’t own the farm and have very little debt, so am getting along quite well. I don’t envy the big farms with their labor challenges. Here, I’m it.”

As to the farm name, ToldYaSo Holsteins, I asked both Nick and Maria where that came from.

There is no big story behind it, they agreed. It just came up in a discussion years ago. But this is an all registered Holstein herd.


What is the long term future of a 55-cow dairy herd in a rented barn in a debt free operation? What is the future of a 2,000-cow herd in a operation loaded with debt?  Good questions, but no absolute answers other than “it depends".

The ToldYaSo Holsteins occupy a rented dairy facility on a 200 acre farm.

What is the happiness in what you are doing worth? A lot—it’s priceless. There are many roads to the future. We can only take our pick and do our best.

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