Wisconsin has room for dairy farms of all sizes, according to an official with the state’s Dairy Innovation Hub.
Maria Woldt, program manager for the Dairy Innovation Hub, discussed the advantages the Hub can offer the state’s dairy industry while detailing operations on the 60-cow Dane County dairy farm she operates with her husband, Nick, during the Jan. 26 Wisconsin Agricultural Outlook Forum organized by UW–Madison’s Renk Agribusiness Institute.
Woldt said that for small farms, being cost-conscious is one of the keys to success. She said many farm bankruptcies can come down to just buying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“I think farms can be successful at any size, it just really depends on how you manage your risk,” she said. “A small farm, much like a small business, there’s just not a lot of margin for error so you have to be really careful on how you manage risk and how you buy things.
The Woldt’s ToldYaSo Holsteins between Sun Prairie and Marshall in Dane County is home to between 55 and 60 cows.
“When you milk 55 cows you, you get to do everything or you have to do everything,” Woldt said.
Woldt said she and Nick transitioned into the farm from an older couple that was looking to exit the business.
“He kind of bought his way and slowly, buying some cows and then the whole herd and kind of grew from there,” she said.
They farm on a majority rented land and majority rented facilities, she said.
“It’s a little bit different than I think what a lot of people are used to,” she said. “But it is probably one of the reasons why we’re still milking cows, quite honestly, particularly in Dane County, where it’s not a secret that land is very expensive.”
They milk two times a day in a 26-stall stanchion barn. The cows are housed in a sand-bedded free-stall barn and are switched to get through milking. They use single pulsator milkers.
“It’s definitely nothing fancy, but it does the job,” Woldt said. “Our emphasis is really on quality milk and trying to capture as many premiums as we can from our processor.”
As a small dairy, Woldt said the biggest challenge presented by the global coronavirus pandemic was the wildly fluctuating milk prices. She said she was grateful they did not have to dump any milk this past spring, when processors were facing capacity issues due to school and restaurant shutdowns.
“Our processor sold the milk at a highly discounted rate, but it was sold, and so we’re grateful for that,” she said. “For us, milk was $11 in May and $26 in November. That makes it really hard to plan any type of project or make any type of investment in yourself.
“It’s really hard when you have a $15 price swing and your income in a year. You want to invest in things to make your farm better, but at the same time that’s really hard if prices are going to crash a month later. You just try to do your best and manage risk and invest in things that can help you make money.”
Because they are trying to capture premiums, Woldt said the herd’s somatic cell count for the year usually averages between 60,000 and 65,000. Their rolling herd average is usually between 29,000 and 30,000, she said.
“Due to some of the great work being done at the university that we’ve been able to capitalize on our rolling herd average,” Woldt said.
Through her work at the Dairy Innovation Hub, Woldt coordinates activities between Hub collaborators at UW–Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls.
The Dairy Innovation Hub, which launched in 2019, harnesses research and development at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls campuses to keep Wisconsin’s dairy community at the global forefront in producing nutritious dairy products in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable manner. It is supported by a $7.8 million annual investment by the state of Wisconsin.
In turn, the Dairy Innovation Hub provides funding for broadly-defined dairy research at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls. The funding supports research personnel, farms and labs in four areas related to dairy that each span many academic disciplines, including stewarding land and water resources, enriching human health and nutrition, ensuring animal health and welfare, and growing farm businesses and communities.
Funding is split 52% for Madison and 24% each for UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls.
“The Hub is into its second year, and we’ve already been having impacts across the three participating campuses,” she said. “Collaboration is so key between each of the campuses.”
Woldt said the Dairy Innovation Hub has moved quickly from an idea formed by Dairy Task Force 2.0, which was led by Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at UW-Madison, to its current form across the three university campuses. The Dairy Innovation Hub is based on legislation introduced by state Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Travis Tranel in 2019 that was based on the Dairy Innovation Hub concept endorsed by the Dairy Task Force 2.0 in December 2018.
Woldt said she expects researchers involved with the Dairy Innovation Hub to be contributing meaningful innovations to the dairy industry in the state for years to come to help grow the state’s $45.6 billion dairy industry.
“In addition to supporting well established dairy researchers, the Hub is generating a lot of interest from people who are new to dairy,” she said.