Harken to a note from the past of agriculture

John Oncken
For much of the 20th century straw was the popular bedding, when small grains were a part of the crop rotation and straw was plentiful.

Apr. 10, 1990: "This column won’t be promotion or advertising. It will be about programs, politics and people – especially people – in agriculture that may cause you to read and remember and react. And to say, 'I didn’t know that.'"

That was the concluding paragraph in the first issue of this column, 31 years and over 1,600 columns ago. That was when editor Dave Zweifel and economics editor Warren Gaskill agreed that Madison’s The Capital Times would be home to these weekly words from a former farm boy. I doubt that any of us figured it would be around in 2021, soooo far in the future. Unfortunately the then-daily Capital Times ceased its daily publication many years ago, but this column had already begun appearing in the Wisconsin State Farmer years prior. So this weekly continues.

Except for only one issue, in March 2005. That was the day a nurse at Merritter Hospital said that after 14 pints of blood loss, things were getting serious, and hauled this writer to the operating room where three and a half feet of my colon was skillfully removed and a column was missed. A fair trade!

The farming issues so long ago in 1990 were not unlike those today. Now, as then, milk prices led agricultural discussions, always with solutions just out of reach. But today’s farm issues center on food exports to counter the everlasting subject of too much milk being produced and fake milks increasing in popularity by the year.

Those 1,600+ columns have covered an endless line of subjects. Here are a few I especially remember. 

Straw is the preferred bedding at Dairy Expo, but it is laid a foot deep or more for comfort and to prevent injury. It is constantly replaced to keep the animals clean.

Apr. 30, 2008 quotes

"Popular farm issues in the public discussion center on using corn to make ethanol and eating healthy – depending on what one’s version of eating healthy might be. And of course, saving the environment and world in many different ways is still a popular topic."

Meanwhile, Wisconsin has long been the number two dairy state in milk production (since 1993) but remains number one in family dairy farms. In 1990, the state claimed 33,900 dairy farms and 1.76 million cows as compared to the 7,000 dairy farms of 2021 that house 1.25 million cows.

File photo.

The doubts of ethanol

"'You can’t use corn for ethanol,' many folks proclaimed. 'Children are starving everywhere.' It didn’t matter to them that those starving children never ate our grain for one reason or another – their country ruling against GMO crops, indifference or corruption."

Switch grass was the preferred choice by many environmentalists as the basic raw material from which to make ethanol. It was a great idea with one major problem, I wrote: "There are no acres of switch grass raised commercially in the state. Even if there were, there is no equipment available to process the crop."

Note: I wonder whatever happened to the switch grass mania. Corn remains king in the ethanol world in 2021.

Even bedding with straw has become somewhat automated.

May 30, 2005 quotes

"Young children love to play in sand; adults crowd oceanside beaches on hot days to lie on the sand. Sand is used to make glass and build buildings, and increasingly, sand has become the bedding of choice in the nation’s dairy barns because cows love it."

Some history: When dairy cows were first housed in simple sheds, chances were the floor was dirt. When the dairy herd grew, the farmer realized that in order to keep the barn clean, a hard floor was needed. Early on wood was used, but this, while easier to clean, tended to absorb liquid and easily rotted and warped.

Many herds prefer mats or mattresses for cow comfort.

Concrete eventually became the floor of choice in dairy barns and most all dairy barns have it, even those built in the early 1900s. Someone put in gutters that ran behind the cows locked in stanchions, making for easier manure cleanup.

But concrete is hard and very uncomfortable for cows to lay on. Thus, the advent of bedding. During my days as a farm boy, straw was the bedding of choice in dairy barns.  Big straw stacks sat beside most dairy barns from the 1920s until well into the 1950s.  Straw was reshuffled several times during the day so that the cow had a softer and more comfortable surface on which to lay.

Large herds often prefer sand bedding because of cow comfort and automation in handling.

A need for change

But dairy farmers always look for a better bedding, something softer and more absorbent. Most dairy farms had at least some (maybe all) of their cows with swollen knees from lying on the concrete.

Rubber mats have become popular in recent years in stanchion, tie-stall and freestall barns. Along the way, cow "mattresses" hit the dairy market. The soft, ground, rubber-filled mattress is soft, but gets dirty fast and is a bit expensive. Still, they're popular in many dairy barns across the country.

Then sand arrived as cow bedding and we were back to the beginning, before concrete.  Cows love to sleep in fine sand. It is soft and gives way to knees, briskets and udders. But it has its downside – sand goes out with the manure and must be replaced. It also raises havoc with manure pumps. 

Note: Sand is the best in 2021.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at