Test of time: milk tester's job changes with dairy industry

Longtime milk tester Byron Binstock, second from left, visited with three generations of Wohlks on their family farm on Highway P in Almena in early May. At left is Glen Wohlk, second-generation farmer. On Binstock’s other side is Glen’s Uncle Gilbert, who farmed with his dad, Calvin, now deceased; and Glen’s sons, Clayton and Kurt.

With fewer family dairy farms scattered throughout the countryside, the job of the milk tester has utterly changed as well.

For more than 30 years, Byron Binstock has made monthly visits to Rainbow Valley Farm just north of Almena on Highway P, owned by three generations of Wohlks.

First brothers Gilbert and the late Calvin ran the farm, then Calvin’s son Glen, who now farms with his sons, Clayton and Kurt, who has his own trucking business, Hay River Trucking.

Each visit, on the first Sunday of the month, includes a courtesy breakfast after the testing is complete.

The breakfast is a tradition that goes back many decades and was a highlight of the month as the milk tester shared news from other farms on his route over a cup of hot coffee and a plate of eggs, bacon and toast.

As the small family farms dwindled, so has the talk around the table, now replaced by blogs on social media.

To compensate for the farms no longer in operation and thus no longer in need of a milk tester, Binstock has had to increase his territory.

In addition to a few remaining area herds, Binstock now tests herds in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, even extending to the western states of Nebraska and Colorado.

He soon trained a crew to take over the milk testing in Colorado as that was a test of his own endurance.

Farm background

Binstock grew up in a large family on a small dairy farm in Dickinson, N.D., where they had a herd of 110 milking cows and acres of land far and wide.

“I’m the only one out of 12 kids still in the dairy sector,” Binstock said.

After high school, he joined the military and spent three years in Germany. After returning and marrying, he and his wife settled in Richland County, where he took up a milk testing route from where another old tester left off.

“The dairies were so small in the area that I later relocated,” Binstock recalled between bites at a May 5 breakfast at the Wohlk farm.

That relocation brought him to Barron County, settling in the Almena area, and he and his wife have since moved to Long Lake.

“I took over a small route of about 40,” he said. It was about the same amount of dairies as he had before, but there was a bigger population of dairies in the county, he said.

“I built it up,” Binstock said. “It evolved into servicing 104 dairies over an area of 25 miles.”

With wistful reflection, he added, “Less than 10 percent of them are still operating.”

The Wohlk farm is among the few still going strong. Brokers, Schullos and Scheps are a few other Barron County farms where he tests monthly. The Schlonegers of Shell Lake in Washburn County is another.

Writing him out a check at the breakfast table, Glen Wohlk said, “It used to cost $70, now it’s $250, and the price of milk hasn’t increased that much. That’s why the small dairy farms are disappearing.”

Fewer farms, larger herds

“It’s just been within the last 15 years that they rapidly began selling,” Binstock said. The milk tester estimates he has lost eight to 10 farms a year due to falling milk prices and the rising cost of operation.

Helping to offset the decreasing number of farms has been the increasing of herd size in the farms that still exist.

Even so, the changing dairy industry has required the milk tester to commute further distances and spend more time of the road.

Thankfully his son Russell, who lives in New Richmond, helps him out with testing in the “western region.”

Currently Binstock tests milk at three dairies in St. Peter, Minn., one of the dairies owns three herds, one with 10,000 cows. He also tests milk from Minnesota herds in Detroit Lakes, Delano and Princeton.

In North Dakota, they test five dairies in four days, altogether testing the milk of 4,500 cows.

Iowa is an expanding market for milk testing. In early May, he said they were testing the milk of 12,000 cows at three farms in three days. By the end of May, the tester said they added two more farms for an additional 22,000 cows.

“Even in a declining industry, my business is actually growing at quite a rapid pace,” Binstock said. “It’s kind of an exciting time right now. If you’re willing to travel, the opportunities are huge. We could also use the help.”

Changing times

The longtime milk tester came up with a few other changes on today’s dairy farms that farmers a half-century ago never would have imagined.

“Dairies are milking every hour of the day,” he said. “As farms got larger, they needed to maximize their incomes, so they started milking three times a day.”

That change in milking times has prompted a change in his own workday schedule — sometimes starting earlier, other times working later — to accommodate milking schedules.

After another swig of coffee, Binstock continued, “Probably what has changed the most is the make-up of the employees on the farm. It used to be no Hispanics. Now I can work all week and see nothing but.”

More diagnostics, faster results

Traditionally milk was tested for butterfat, protein and somatic cell count, and it was done twice in 24 hours for an accurate sample.

Binstock said he did the twice testing for his first 10 years as a milk tester and was glad when testing became more accurate so one testing was sufficient.

“That allowed us to service more dairies,” he said.

Although he never did so, he’s heard the stories of many old-time milk testers who arrived at a farm to get a test during the evening milking, then spent time with the family, eating, visiting, playing games and staying overnight and getting a second test during morning milking before leaving the farm and doing it all over again at the next farm down the road.

Like in other industries, technology of equipment is continuing to improve and get faster. He used to test 5,000 samples a month, now he can do that many in a day.

He started out using a “barn sheet” while getting the samples. Now he types the results into his laptop computer, which in the Wohlks’ barn he had propped up on a wheelbarrow.

Binstock said in addition to the quality of a cow’s milk, he can test for many other conditions, such as leukosis, Johne’s disease, even pregnancy.

“As the company continued to grow as dairies dwindled, research has allowed for many other diagnostics,” he said.

Samples are sent to the AgSource Laboratories in Menomonie, and farmers get results in 24 to 36 hours on computer or in four days by mail.

At least one thing hasn’t changed in the dairy industry over the years. Barn cats still love the fresh, warm drips of milk from the milking equipment after another round of milking is done.