Curious readers seek more information on Wisconsin agriculture

John Oncken
The traditional dairy barns were built to be warm for the humans that worked inside…maybe too warm for the cows.

It seems the right time to answer more questions that readers have asked me about things written here or that they are just curious about farming-wise. First and foremost, some readers seem to see me as the subject of these columns. In reality, I'm usually writing about someone else and their endeavors or accomplishments.

Cold weather and cows

Q: How did farmers keep their milk cows from freezing over the past winter?

A: Cows have a much higher tolerance to cold than do humans and give off a good amount of body heat and will do quite well if they are kept out of the wind. Of course, curtains are drawn down on the freestall barns, bedding is kept clean and dry and extra feed is provided. The traditional stanchion or tie stall barns were built very tight and are often on the warm side even during the coldest of weather.

All animals are kept under close supervision and farmers adjust what they can. Frozen water pipes might be an equally big threat as cows need to drink a lot of water.

In addition to eating at a Breakfast on the Farm event, visitors can see cows up close.

Where can I visit a farm?

Q: Where can I take my family to visit a farm? I’d like my children to see where their food comes from.

A: This question has come up continually during the over the three decades of this column's existence and every year it gets a bit harder to answer as farms become bigger and fewer in number.

Obviously, those who ask don’t have a relative or friend on a farm so my answer is to attend a June Dairy Month Breakfast on the Farm. There are about 60 held annually with one in about every Wisconsin county.  About mid-May, the Dairy Farmers of posts a list of farm breakfasts (by date and location) along with directions and breakfast cost (usually $5 - $7).  

If you aren’t a farm kid, seeing a cow or calf up close is sort of a shock.

You’ll have an opportunity to eat a big farm breakfast, get an overview of dairy farming, see animals up close and talk with many dairy farmers. You may gain a new friend and an invitation to visit their farm. Don’t be bashful or in a hurry, ask questions learn and have fun. 

Nowadays, you don’t just stop at a farm and ask to visit as most farmers are busy and don’t have time to give tours to individuals. Then there are the concerns of liability and bringing in diseases on shoes. Certainly, many farmers, especially the larger family operations, are happy to have visitors and often give tours to groups like Kiwanis, Red Hatters, church and youth groups. The key is to call and make arrangements first.

There are also farms offering tours (for a small fee) across the state. Check the internet.

Jackie Sperle and Barney Lambert owned the Utica Store for 27 years and now live in Stoughton while the store remains empty.

It’s gone

Q: You used to occasionally write about a general store at Utica in Dane county. Is it still open?

A: I’ve always loved old country general stores and Barney’s Country Store at Utica, about 20 miles south of Madison, was a favorite, especially on weekend bicycle rides.  

Unfortunately, Barney Lambert and Jackie Sperle, who operated the poplar community gathering spot, retired in 2008 after 30 years. The store was sold to three men who didn’t have the acumen and rural/people wherewithal to make the business go.  

They last tried to sell pizza but it didn't work. They moved out several years ago and in the words of one of the Utica residents: “They left it vacant and it’s now populated by varmints.” Too bad, it’s sorely missed by the community.

A video auction?

Q: You once wrote about a beef cattle sale in which the animals actually didn’t go through a sale ring. How did that work?

A: It worked fine. Here’s how the system works. The first video auction I attended was some years ago at the Gaffney Family Angus Cattle Sale held on the farm near Barneveld. The auction was held in a building outfitted with tables, chairs, bleachers and a big screen onto which the video of sale animals was projected and the bidding held. 

The Gaffney family hires a consultant who prepares the cattle and videos them (in pens) prior to the sale. On sale day, the cattle are on exhibit in temporary paddocks just outside the sale building offering potential buyers a close-up view. 

Owners Scott and Valerie Gaffney have used the video system for a quite a few years and like it. "It offers a good view of the cattle and means we do not need to train the animals to lead,” Scott says. “It’s a lot less work. Nowadays most farm auctions from land to cattle have a video connection with off-site bidding."

Raising tobacco requires labor...lots of labor as this field being harvested shows,

Tobacco, not gone yet

Q: I didn’t know Wisconsin raised tobacco until I read about it in your column several years ago. a reader said. Does it still have a future as a crop?

A: Maybe, maybe not is the evasive answer. A few counties in southern and western Wisconsin with a large Norwegian heritage have raised tobacco (for chewing) for over a 100 years. Currently the acreage is small, only a few hundred acres, most all in Dane, Rock and Jefferson counties.

The problem is that a government/grower program ended, thus providing no guaranteed buyer. Now there is only one local buyer (a Swedish company) who assigns production quotas to a limited number of growers according to their expected needs. Growing tobacco is hard work and labor is scarce. And, imported tobacco seems to be taking over. Thus the future of tobacco as a viable long-term Wisconsin crop seems dim. 

Good questions and hopefully good answers.

John F. Oncken can be reached at