Happy dairying in North Dakota

John Oncken
Dairy farmer Kenton Holle on his four-wheeler met John Oncken in the summer of 2008 with a “good to see you” greeting.

Near twenty years ago (2002 perhaps), I met Kenton Holle, a dairy farmer from North Dakota at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Business Conference. He was milking about 100 cows not far from Mandan, but was looking for a dairy facility, one larger and more modern as his three sons had some interest in dairy farming and the existing dairy didn’t offer a possibility for expansion.

Of course, I write about our conversation in this column.

An unexpected visit

Jump ahead to 2008 when my wife and I took a vacation to Mt. Rushmore, a trip we had long planned. Our return trip plan was to travel on backroads across South and North Dakota to Grand Forks where my son and family lived. About halfway through southern North Dakota, I noted a large dairy facility perhaps a half mile off the highway – an unusual site in this land of open spaces, beef ranches and no dairy farms.

"Let’s go see the dairy," I said.

"No, you can’t do that, they are probably busy –  we can’t just stop in," my wife Jan said with a lot of emphasis and no enthusiasm about the idea at all.

Anyway, in spite of my wife’s reluctance and the fact that I'd dropped in at hundreds of dairies unannounced over the years, we pulled into the driveway, stopped and were met by a man in a four-wheeler. "See," my wife said, "We’re in trouble, just like I said."

As I opened the car door, the man spoke and greeted me with, "Hi John, so good to have you visit us –  it's been awhile." Of course, it turned out to be Kenton Holle, who I had met at the PDPW gathering eight or nine years earlier.

Kenton Holle has watched the dairy herd grow and son Andrew gradually take over the dairy.

It's a small world

As we toured his dairy, Kenton told us how they had purchased this foreclosed dairy in 2003. A 36-cow carousel parlor was ready to use, but the freestall barn was far from complete. The farm was not far from a dairy processor and was just what the family was looking for. 

Today, 12 years later, Kenton Holle is getting ready to retire as his oldest son Andrew and his wife Jennifer fully take over after being co-owners for many years. The dairy herd has expanded over the years to about 750 cows now. And Northern Lights Dairy is known and respected nationally – Kenton served two terms on the Dairy Management Inc. Board and was a leader of the North Dakota Livestock Association. Perhaps most importantly, the next generation of the Holle family is now (and long) in place and the dairy solidly continues for another generation.

My conclusion: it is a small and very interesting world indeed!

More milk in 2020

In a year end summary, the US Department of Agriculture/National Agricultural Statistics Service also reports that US milk production in 2020 was a record 223.1 billion pounds, a gain of 4.7 billion pounds over the 2019 record production. It also noted that US milk flow has increased every year since the 189.2 billion pounds produced in 2009. 

Andrew and Jennifer Holle and their four children are continuing the Holle family dairying tradition. Jennifer and Andrew both have animal science degrees from the University of Minnesota.

Wisconsin’s all-milk price for December was $18.10 per hundredweight, as per the latest USDA/NASS Agricultural Prices report. This is $4.60 cwt. lower than last month's price and $3.30 cwt. lower than last December's price. The US all-milk price of $18.50 cwt. is 40 cents higher than Wisconsin's price, but $2.80 cwt. lower than a month earlier. 

Dick Groves, editor of the Cheese Reporter, a weekly industry newspaper, points out that the big production increases came during the last half of 2020. He also sees high milk flow continuing in January, meaning the possibility of "a fair amount of milk looking for a home in the next few months, and that likely means relatively low milk prices."

The annual PDPW Business Conference will be live in Wisconsin 
Dells. However, attendees will not be seated this close 
together - it's the rule.

Everything's gone online

Up until about a year ago, it seemed like no one in the farming world had ever heard the word "virtual" –  now, it seems to come up in most every conversation. And it seems the word has applied to all farm-related conferences, conventions, summits and gatherings. The companion word to virtual is "canceled," which happened all through 2020 and is already being used for some ag-related gatherings in the year ahead, the Wisconsin Public Service Farm Show at Oshkosh being one.

The PDPW Annual Business Conference (Mar. 17-18) is going ahead full speed, live and inperson, as their mail-out invitations and literature indicate. However, the event is moving from the Alliant Energy Center in Madison to the Kalahari Resort Convention Center in Wisconsin Dells.

Northern Lights Dairy in Mandan, ND, has been owned by the Holle family since 2003. It has expanded from 350 cows to 750. The closest dairy is about 20 miles away, Kenton Holle says.

"After a challenging and often isolating 2020, we are all looking forward to the opportunity to gather together in a safe and engaging environment," said Katy Schultz, PDPW Board President from Fox Lake.

The conference will follow appropriate COVID-19 requirements and health precautions according to PDPW. The program and location have been adapted to meet CDC-recommended guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic and the health and safety of attendees is of highest priority for PDPW and the Kalahari staff.

"Capacities have been calculated for each room, with seating arrangements that allow attendees to reposition chairs to ensure safe distances," PDPW said. "To promote social distancing during sessions, extra audiovisual equipment will be set up in overflow areas. All food and beverages will be individually served by Kalahari staff, and masks and hand sanitizer will be included in training kits for each attendee."

My guess is that PDPW members will look forward to "getting out" after many months of staying home. Also, by that time most should probably have received their vaccine shots and will be ready to go.

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