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What a strange year 2020 has been

John Oncken
Even in the best milking parlor, cows need the farmer every day.

Another year has come and gone, and believe it or not, it’s now 2021.

That means we all went through a most unusual year – a year in which we learned the meaning of the word “virtual,” a word with many meanings (look it up), but for practical purposes right now, the definition “a computer system that creates an environment that looks real on the screen and in which the person operating the computer can take part,” sort of fits. 

Cows in a stanchion barn require even more human care.

No meetings

For the first time in anyone’s memory, 2020 was a year (after about Feb. 1) without actual farm-type meetings of any kind. No World Dairy Expo, no Farm Technology Days, County Fairs and even no small, local production or management gatherings. Yes, farmers or anyone interested could go the virtual route and see, hear and participate on a computer, but that’s not the same as being there in person. I’ve always maintained (and written) that much of the information and education gained at any meeting comes from what is now known as networking – people talking with people. 

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But what is an organization supposed to do if there cannot be a gathering of their members? Go the virtual route, or nothing at all, are the choices –  with nothing at all being an almost sure way to totally lose contact with members and other ag reps, maybe forever. After about 10 months of the virtual efforts, I’m not sure of the actual farmer participation or learning value, but it seems to be working. 

Consumers expect shelves full of milk.

To be honest, farmers and their suppliers are more interested in the weather, crop production and income side of things, and 2020 proved to be a good year in those respects. The Wisconsin Ag Statistics Service noted that 2020 “was an adequate year for planting and harvesting” with Wisconsin corn production at 539 million bushels with an average 186 bushels per acre yield on 2.9 million acres harvested for grain. (Note that high yield would have been thought impossible a generation ago.) Soybean production was at 109 million bushels with a 55.0 bushels per acre average yield on 1.98 million acres, up 8.0 bushels per acre from 2019.

Even the biggest semi requires a human to get the milk to the processor.

A good dairy year

As for dairying, producers call it “a pretty good year.” Dairy analyst Bob Cropp summarizes: "Milk prices fell at the end of the year and we can expect lower prices going into next year. In November, the Class III (cheesemilk) price set a record high for the month at $23.34. The Class III price for December will fall by more than $7 to below $16. But still the Class III price will average about $18.25 this year compared to $16.96 last year."

I talked with several dairy producer friends recently who said their milk checks were over $20 per hundredweight the last three months, and they were happy. 

Elevators are full after a good crop year.

More milk coming?

But as always happens in dairying, good prices bring increased production, according to the US Department of Agriculture: "Milk production continues to run well above year ago levels. November milk production was 3.0% higher than a year ago with increases of 2.3% each of the previous two months. Dairy herd expansion which started in July continues with another 12,000 cows added October to November. There were 62,000 more cows in November than a year ago, an increase of 0.7%. November increases in milk production for the top 5 producing states was: California 2.6%, Wisconsin 2.7%, Idaho 2.0%, New York 2.1%, and Texas 9.8%."

The question then is: How much more milk can the market handle without lowering the milk prices?

Working the soil is still a job done by farmers.

Staying at home isn't easy

You have probably read how the “stay at home quarantine” has had negative impacts on many people. Working parents who are unaccustomed to being home all day with young children not in school. People who normally work with a wide range of other people and who travel a lot. The many folks accustomed to eating at restaurants and now eat only at home. Then there are the many employees not working at all after losing jobs or being furloughed.

Dairy farmers are not much affected by such things because they are needed and mostly stay at home anyway. They are always needed by their cows for feeding, milking, hauling manure and general maintenance. Unlike many government and corporate workers who can be furloughed (otherwise unessential), dairy and other livestock producers are always needed – every hour of every day. And, of course, needed by consumers who want their milk, meat, bacon, eggs and cereal every day.

Pasturing cattle may be more economical, but the farmer must still be involved nearly full-time.

What's important to us

I’m not sure all farmers realize how important they are to the rest of us, but I do know, as does every other consumer when they drink their milk at home or when the milk shelf is empty in their supermarket.

Guesses as to when life will reacquire a sense of normalcy are many and varied because little has been said about possible changes in our lives and farming, but there will be many, I’m sure. (A subject for another day.)

No farm meetings this year, but farming didn’t slow down.

As for me, I’ll stay close to home until things change for the better, and watch and listen to how agriculture fares under the new president and his regime – something that is still an open question.

A final note: As of Dec. 1, Wisconsin had 6,949 dairy herds as compared to 7,292 a year ago. That’s a drop of 343, a far cry from the decline of 818 a year ago.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.