Farmers urged to feed the world

Jan Shepel Correspondent
Now Media Group


"Do not be so busy being important that you forget how important you are," said Don Mielke, an avid dairy producer, father of five children and grandfather to 10.

Miekle was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Scenic Central Dairy Cooperative in Richland Center last week.

Mielke has made 25 trips to 12 different countries to help cattle producers learn better techniques for raising their animals. One of the things he taught producers in developing countries was the specialty of artificial insemination.

In successive trips to several countries, including the war-ravaged Uganda in the wake of despotic leader Idi Amin's reign, Mielke said he saw the value of dairy cattle genetics to the families who depended on those animals. Though it's not the same these days for Wisconsin dairy producers, he urged them not to skimp on the genetics of their dairy cattle.

"Breeding is not an expense," he said. "It's an investment. I'm trying to advise you not to skimp on it. Please do not skimp on breeding because that's your future."

Mr. Holstein

Mielke, who was once known as "Mr. Holstein" for the top animals in that breed that his herd produced, is now as well known for his Jerseys. The 45-cow Jersey herd, housed on the farm where he grew up, is second in the nation in butterfat production and 11th in protein production in the United States.

Mielke first gained an appreciation for the smaller, brown cows in 1999, when he was on a teaching assignment on a large California farm noted for its registered Holsteins. "It was 112 degrees that day and I was teaching in a room over the parlor. With that heat I noticed they were picking up a lot of dead cows."

On a similarly hot day he was on a 500-cow Jersey operation nearby. "I had always been kind of fascinated by Jerseys and when I looked at that herd that day I saw no panting, no saliva, no dead cows and to top it all off they were showing signs of being in heat."

Soon after, he was in Johannesburg, South Africa, brought by a breeder who had Holsteins. "But all his neighbors had Jerseys. South Africa is full of Jerseys," he recalled. "They told me that the Jerseys' red hair deterred tick problems and the Jersey cattle were able to tolerate heat so much better."

All about Jerseys

He was convinced. When he got home from that trip he bought two Jerseys and he hasn't stopped since. Over the years his breeder's eye and mind have refined what he looks for in a Jersey cow.

"At that time I was looking for the wrong kind," he says now. "I wanted those that I could win shows with." But as he learned more, he switched to the kind of cow that is more productive.

"I like good looking cows that milk and can pay for themselves," he said.

"If someone had told me after putting 35 Holstein bulls into AI studs that I'd have Jerseys I would have told them I had a better chance of being the winning jockey at Churchill Downs." But the majority of his herd is now Jersey.

Mielke almost didn't get the chance to be part of the dairy industry. He was the youngest of 10 children. His parents had eight daughters and then a son who died at birth. Don came along after that. But his dad sold the dairy herd when Don was 12 years old.

Young Don missed those cows and at the age of 14 bought his own dairy cattle. By the time he was 17 he purchased his first registered Holsteins. But he admits he didn't get his cattle smarts from his dad. "I got my love of cows from my mother's side of the family — my Uncle Louie and Uncle Jake."

A larger purpose

He sees more productive dairy cattle as one key to helping feed the hungry people of the world that he saw on his travels. "I will never forget seeing starving children. It is something you just don't get over.

"Every 3.7 days a million people are born. How do we feed them all? That's our job."

When he went to Uganda it was in the wake of famine that had caused people to clamor into the bull studs and kill bulls that were standing in pens so they could eat them. He was called in as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture program to help rebuild the AI centers in Uganda. "One person was picked from each of 32 provinces to attend this school when I first went there in 1987. Uganda is a country the size of Wisconsin and it now has 37.58 million people."

It is a landlocked country in eastern Africa, he explained and it's on the equator with a perfect climate for growing feed and food. But when he first went there the cattle were losing weight. Their main problem was inbreeding. "They couldn't keep their calves alive. They were breeding these Watusi cattle for the reddest hair and the longest white horns. At that time milk was only for sick children."

Now in Uganda there are cheese factories and yogurts plants and a 200-cow dairy is commonplace.

Eye-opening experience

Mielke said he was honored and proud to return to Uganda many times, especially seven years ago when he was asked to judge the first National Dairy Show there. "It was an eye-opening experience to see the progress they had made."

He urged farmers in his dairy cooperative to think of their work as a boon to humankind. "What you do for yourself is your living. What you do for others is your life. Milking cows is about feeding people."

Making dairy cattle as productive as they can be is especially important, he said, in light of the loss of farmland in the United States. "In 2015, we lost one million acres of farmland. Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin all lost in excess of 100,000 acres of farmland."

On the Menasha-area farm he calls home he has seen a lot of urban pressure and notes that it is difficult to see huge apartment complexes take the place of good farmland. "I've seen crops taken off that good land for the last time," he said.

He urged his audience of fellow dairy farmers to be aware of their role in feeding the world. "In the last 40 minutes while I've been talking 10,000 people were born. We have to think about how we're going to feed them."