Technology always leads the way

John Oncken
Threshing machines were commonly used into the early 1950s. When John Oncken's dad bought a combine, the grain harvest went from several day of shocking oats and another two weeks on the threshing crew to about three days of combining.

In 2022 the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin fell to just above 6100. “Horrors!” some will exclaim. They will then go on to blame government, big business, milk processors, media and other farmers.

“Baloney and balderdash!,” I say. Farmers are like other business owners, they do the best they can given the resources available. When I was a boy, our farming resources were few; two horses, a 10 year old Farmall Regular tractor, a line of horse-drawn equipment that dad was converting to tractor-powered, a corn binder, a grain binder and a variety of implements that made farming 80 acres of land a full time job.

Then dad bought a combine and the grain harvest went from several day of shocking oats and another two weeks on the threshing crew to about three days of combining. Think of that!

An early corn picker…New Idea was oneof the first popular brands that picked and husked the ears.

When I was in high school, dad finally bought a two unit International milking machine to milk our small dairy herd. Instantly, the milking process went from three people to one.

The Ag Revolution

The ending of World War II saw farm equipment manufacturing replace that of tanks, planes and guns and the agricultural industrial revolution caught fire as technology crept in, then walked, and took off running.

A.I. arrives

In the late 1940’s cattle artificial insemination was getting started. Madison-based ABS and Curtiss Candy of Cary, Illinois and several universities put millions into research and a couple of hundred farmer cooperatives blanketed the nation's dairyland with genetics that allowed dairy farmers to get more milk from fewer cows.

Animal feed advances meant more milk, more pork, more poultry – more of every farm raised foodstuff. Same for the gains in fertilizer, seeds, pesticides and weed killers.

Corn yields prior to the advent of hybrids were low.

Cheaper food

Most every farmer in America used the new technology aimed at producing food that the growing population could buy at a cheap price, everywhere.

That growth in technology and farm production continues today as every farmer (except for Amish and other religious sects) with milk production now averaging over 24,000 pounds per cow per year and 200 bushels of corn per acre fairly easily accomplishes. Compare that production of milk (8,000 pounds per cow) and 75 bushels of corn per acre during my growing up days.

Too much milk, too much corn and soybeans, too much manure, too much noise, too much smell. “Too much farming” some will say. “Not like it was during my childhood,” they add.

A new law

I have an answer for big farming. Let’s make a law to farm as we did in about 1955. We’ll use 2-3 plow tractors, bring back milk cans and the haulers who lifted each 100 pound can of milk four feet up in to the truck, use two-row corn planters, small combines and limit dairy herds to maybe 30 cows. Every farmer will still be a family farmer but the folks who dislike the big family farmers of today will be happy.

A producer pulls a can filled with milk from a cooling tank.

I absolutely guarantee that our manure problem will go away. So will genetically modified seeds and lots of research laboratories at Universities and research parks across the land.

Back to the good old (bad) days

I suspect that this move will have a major impact on non-farmers as well. Just setting up a food rationing system will be a major challenge and may even cause minor civil disturbances .

Imagine the strikes for higher wages by organized labor to pay for the food that is in short supply. On the other hand, a whole new industry of making insulated boxes for the front porch to hold the home delivered milk bottles will spring up. Same for the construction industry busily involved in rebuilding the small grocery stores so common in 1955. Of course, there were no discount stores or malls in that era so we’d need to figure out what the now-empty Targets and Wal-Marts might be used for.

And so it goes. Unless you lived in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s you’ll not understand what and how modern farming and its ever growing technology has changed the world and it continues every second today. Memories of that small family farm are just that...memories.

A horse drawn manure spreader was used on most every farm during the mid - 1900’s.

Did the milk of 1950 taste better than that you can buy today? I sure can’t tell the difference if it's not low fat milk. I also know that the milk I will buy at a store tomorrow is not going to make me sick ‒ something rather common before the advent of strict milk production rules.

I certainly realize that we are not going back to the farming of “the good old days” when we had 80,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin. Just as I’m sure we are not going back to those days when every small town had a local newspaper written and printed by an owner who was generally working alone and on Wednesday was covered with ink when the creaking hot-type press failed during the print run. Or the return of Levenick’s market on Atwood Avenue in Madison where Uncle Floyd served each customer individually and used a long pole to grab the Wheaties on the top shelf.

Nonetheless, I’m concerned that so many people seem to see big farming as evil, something that should go away in favor of little red barns and mom, dad and the kids milking a small dairy herd.

I'm happy that farmers continue to produce food for the rest of us. If everyone had to buy their food at an outdoor farmers market or local store we’d be in a heap of trouble.

No, farming can’t go back. Eating is too important.

John F. Oncken can be reached at