Quiet ag season ahead? Not quite

John Oncken
The farm field lay empty of crops with many acres already tilled for the coming winter.

I’d guess that most everyone, farmers included, usually consider the weeks between Thanksgiving to the New Year as the quiet season. Businesses traditionally slow down, people take their remaining vacation days and families travel to parent’s houses for the big meal and get together. Schools are on vacation at both ends of the season and most of the students will be back home doing some farm work or maybe little or nothing. 

On the farm, the crops are pretty much all in the barns and bins by late November and all the field work is pretty much done. Normally the one crop still requiring a good bit of physical labor is the stripping of the tobacco hanging in the shed on a hundred or so farms in Dane and Rock county.

The farmers are waiting for a couple of days of warm temperatures and high humidity  that will soften the leaves and allow the hanging lathes of tobacco plants to be taken down, piled, leaves stripped from the stem, bundled and delivered to the warehouse.

Not like it was

To be honest, my thoughts on the holiday season are are still framed by my days as a farm boy on that small dairy farm in Dane county. But, times have changed and this year 2020 is unique in many ways – mostly not so good. 

With major price declines in the cheese market, farmers will certainly feel the pinch in their upcoming milk checks.

Dairy farmers have lived in a strange world of milk prices including “falling off the cliff” low prices in early summer, then having to cut production by selling cows or dumping milk and then near record cheese prices leading to big milk checks.  

Danger ahead

The milk prices seemed to stabilize in recent months but watch out! Since November 1st cheese prices, both Barrel and Block, have been falling like a rock: Barrel cheese (used for processing) is down $1.14  (from $2.53 to $1.14) and Block cheese (used for slicing and eating) has declined $1.01 (from $2.78 ¼ to $1.77) per pound. Those are major drops and the farmer milk price will suffer a big decline in the upcoming milk checks. 

No answer

Why do the cheese prices established daily at the CME in Chicago make such erratic moves?  No real answer – a cheese expert friend once told me, “don’t try to understand or explain, that’s just the way it works and that’s the price.”

But, of course the dairy farm families across dairyland will feel and suffer or enjoy whatever the cheese market does – because the cash cheese price is a major factor in how their mllk price is figured. 

Among the new faces to appear will be a new Secretary of Agriculture to succeed Sonny Perdue as a presidential cabinet member.

New people in the old jobs

The moves will soon begin as new appointees to government jobs are named by President-elect Biden. Among the new faces to appear will be a new Secretary of Agriculture to succeed Sonny Perdue as a presidential cabinet member. Although some names have appeared as possibilities, there doesn’t seem to be a frontrunner at the moment although former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp seems to be a favorite on a long slate of women being mentioned. We’ll probably know soon. Reports are that President Trump considered Heitkamp for the post in 2016 before ultimately selecting Perdue.

Sandy Chalmers

State FSA director will change

On the state level, Sandy Chalmers, Wisconsin Farm Service Agency director will be replaced by a Democrat if tradition holds true. And there are hundred, maybe thousands of other appointments the new president may and no doubt will make. 

Not a problem

A friend recently asked me if I knew how the Covid-19 vaccine – if and when it is ready for distribution – would be would be shipped as reports are indicate the vaccine has a cold storage requirements of minus 90 degrees. 

Liquid nitrogen have been used to transport and store bull semen for some 70 years and could surely be used to transport vaccines.

“No problem,” I replied, “the artificial insemination industry has been shipping dairy bull semen to dairy farmers for over 70 years and every cattle breeder (everywhere, worldwide) probably owns a liquid nitrogen freezer. Interestingly, the finances to develop such a freezer were provided by Rock Prentice, owner of ABS at DeForest, to Union Carbide (Lindsay division) to invent such a freezer in about 1950 and the first calf born from ABS frozen semen happened on a farm near Janesville in 1953.

So - no vaccine transportation equipment worries, I’m sure the manufacturers of the “reefers” will be ready.

Teaching the new

There is lots of work in the near future for the jillions of ag lobbyists on the national and state levels. Firstly, they have to educate and convince the first time, newly elected officials that farming does exist and what legislation is good or not-so-good for the many aspects of agriculture, In many cases it will be like starting from zero especially on the national scene where longtime friend of farming 30 year Minnesota Congressman  Democrat Collin Peterson was defeated in his reelection efforts. Peterson was long respected for his knowledge of agriculture and his work on the always lengthy and controversial  development of Farm Bills.

Another plant milk coming

Another fake milk is being developed by Impossible Foods who have been marketing non meat, meat for some time.  The plant  based product looks like, tastes like and cooks like milk the company says.  

Note - for many years I was a nonstop science fiction reader and the stories centering on space travel often referred to the laboratory made food the space travelers ate.  And, as world as we know it now begins long distance space travel (if we do) that’s the kind of food crews will need to survive. Surely the space ships would not carry cows or soil to raise food – so what else might the crews eat? 

The heifers are still growing and preparing to enter the milking herd on the farms of dairyland.

Farming goes on

Meanwhile, as the coronavirus goes on and just about everything we hear about or react to centers on the pandemic, farming goes on. The cows are still producing milk at ever increasing rates and farmers are still buying and managing to the best of their ability. All the big ag meetings have been canceled or postponed until next year or whenever.  

Farmers like to attend meetings to learn and network but not now.

I certainly miss attending the plethora of farm meetings usually held. I especially miss talking with the farmers and farm families. And, I suspect the farmers miss talking with each other even more. Face to face via computer is just not the same as personal one on one. Lets hope that we return to normal whatever that will be.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at