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A blue barn with a “Thank You Farmers” message near Beaver Dam was the first of four such barns to be adorned with the message by Culver’s.

Problems piling up
Relentless snow wreaks havoc on western Wisconsin farms
Relentless snow wreaks havoc on western Wisconsin farms

ELEVA — Even as another round of snow was beginning to fall, employees, contractors, an insurance adjuster and a veterinarian scrambled around Hamlin Valley Farms surveying the damage after a winter storm Feb. 23-24 caused the roofs of four buildings on the farm to collapse, killing at least 40 head of Holsteins and injuring another 30.

“It’s pretty depressing,” said Gary Gullicksrud, one of the farm’s owners. “A person is just trying to manage to get along with the low milk prices, and all of the sudden to get a catastrophe like this makes things worse yet.”

Gullicksrud said roofs started collapsing early Sunday morning, when one of the main milking barns went down. After a connecting link used to bring cows to the parlor collapsed, panels on the roof of the 1,000-cow barn started collapsing.

“Shortly after it started, it was a domino effect, and every barn was collapsing,” Gullicksrud said. “Luckily, nobody got hurt, but we weren’t able to get all the animals moved away quick enough.

“It’s hard to move about 1,000 head of cattle in an hour’s time.”

Gullicksrud said the loss of animals could have been worse if it wasn’t for the efforts of the farm’s employees, who heard the roof cracking and were able to clear out some of the pens. They then called Gullicksrud, who made his way back to the farm at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

“Trying to get back to the farm, it was unbelievable, the snowstorm,” Gullicksrud said. “Once we showed up, it was just like every barn was coming down on us. It was just the worst feeling ever.”

Gullicksrud said the farm shipped their heifers to an area grower for the time being and consolidated the milkers. He said the family felt fortunate their parlor was undamaged.

“We’re able to still keep milking. We’re just really crammed right now for cow space,” he said. “It would have been totally devastating if we wouldn’t have been able to keep milking. Twenty-one-hundred cows is a lot of animals to try to move somewhere.”

Gullicksrud said most of the farm’s buildings are 110 to 120 feet wide and 30 to 40 feet tall. One of the damaged barns was constructed in 1993, and the others were added in 1997.

“That wind just carried the snow from one side of the roof to the other, to the east side of the roof, and it just got to be too much snow and weight,” he said. “You get that much snow load blowing over the top of them and landing on the other side, it’s a lot of weight.”

Hamlin Valley Farms was founded in 1986 by brothers Gary, David, Mark and Eric Gullicksrud. Gary’s son Chad and David’s sons Jordan and Justin have since bought into the farm.

“It’s a family operation, so it’s not just one person getting the stress load,” he said. “We’re all stressed out about it. But our employees are doing the best they can to help us along.”

The farm milks about 2,100 black-and-white Holsteins three times a day in a double-30 parallel parlor.

“The cows are crowded, but as long as we can keep them fed and bedded and watered, we’ll keep plugging along,” Gullicksrud said. “We keep crossing our fingers and praying every day that nothing more will happen.”

Gullicksrud said several area businesses volunteered to help with clean-up, and several workers were using backhoes with scrapers in an attempt to clear snow off some of the farm’s undamaged roofs.

“We really appreciate the help we got from the local businesses,” he said. “Everybody trucked through the snow to get here and help us out. You have something like this happen, the support you get is wonderful, especially considering the conditions they were working in.”

UW-Extension agriculture agents in western Wisconsin had heard reports of several roof collapses, with Mark Hagedorn in Eau Claire County reporting eight to 10 in his county alone, and Jerry Clark said he was aware of another four in Chippewa County.

Trempealeau County UW-Extension Agriculture Educator Steve Okonek said he’s heard reports of everything from mink sheds near Independence to smaller lean-tos collapsing in his area.

“It doesn’t seem to be older or newer buildings; there’s been a mix,” Okonek said. “It’s already been such a challenging four or five years financially for these farmers anyway.”

Randy and Char Glenna are going through the first full winter with their new dairy barn near Amery in Polk County. Char said hearing of recent barn roof collapses has her on edge.

“I look at our barn roof every day in fear, not knowing how much is too much or even what’s there,” she said.

Across the border, more than 15 barn roof collapses were reported in southern Minnesota, displacing many dairy herds. Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery reported damage to its popular cheese curd trailer after the roof of the shed in which it’s stored for the winter caved in.

Milk truck a no-show

Paul Fischer milks 75 cows in the Owen area and ships about 5,000 pounds of milk each day. Normally, milk from his farm is picked up daily, but because the milk truck couldn’t get through to the farm due to treacherous, drifted roads, the Fischers were forced to send 1,000 pounds down the drain after the Feb. 24 evening milking to make room in the tank for the next morning’s milking.

“I was watching it (go down) to make sure I didn’t take any more than I needed to,” he said, adding that his cooperative, FarmFirst, will cover 75 percent of the loss. “We also milked 1½ hours later on Monday, waiting for the milk truck.”

Fischer said he knows of several other local farmers who had to dump milk — one as much as 5,000 pounds — during the storm because drifting snow made the roads impassable and milk trucks couldn’t make it to their farms. One smaller farmer stored excess milk in pails.

Across southern Minnesota, hundreds more dairy farmers had to dump milk Feb. 24-25 after milk tankers failed to reach their destinations for timely pickup.

The Fischer farm is located on a town road about two miles off a county road. Fischer said that even from the driver’s seat of his four-wheel-drive Dodge pickup, he could barely see over the snowbanks last week.

He said he knows of several collapsed barn roofs in Clark and Taylor counties and recently had someone come in to shovel off two of his roofs because he was concerned about snow load. With more snow forecast last week and temperatures remaining well below freezing, he said, more snow removal could be necessary later.

Fischer said his farm received more than 4 feet of snow last month, and with the ground freezing so deeply earlier in the season, he fears that much of this snow will run off in the fields.

“It’s really disgusting,” Fischer said. “It’s not good. I’m on the town board, and they had to put the V-plow on our grader for the first time in years.”

Salt in the wound

The recent heavy snowfall provides good reason to be concerned about heavy snow loads on farm buildings, especially if more snow falls before the snow already there melts or slides off.

{div class=”page” title=”Page 1”}{div class=”section”}{div class=”layoutArea”}{div class=”column”}“Snow and ice accumulations on roofs cause a loading which can cause the roof to collapse when the roof is not strong enough to resist the load,” said Brian Holmes, UW-Extension emeritus agricultural engineer. “The more dense the snow and ice, the greater the load for a given depth. Wind blown-off and snow slide-off can reduce snow load on a roof. However snow drifting into leeward or lower roofs and valleys and snow slide onto lower roofs can add significant loads from accumulated snow.”

In addition to estimating the roof loading, he said, it’s important to know the loading the roof can resist.

Okonek recommended farmers who were planning to get up on roofs to remove snow first remove the equivalent of their body weight in snow before climbing onto the roof.

“You don’t want to add another 200, 250 pounds to an already fully loaded roof,” Okonek said. “And they’ve got to be careful. Steel roofs get slippery.”

Okonek also said farmers and homeowners should check with their insurance provider to make sure they are covered in the event of a roof collapse.{/div}{/div}{/div}{/div}

Wisconsin Farm Bureau President and Rural Mutual Insurance Company President Jim Holte said recent weather only added insult to injury for western Wisconsin farmers already struggling through tough market conditions. He asked for continued prayers for these producers.

“As farmers were already handling the severe wind and snow, building collapses added even more stress and hardship,” he said.

Holte said Rural Mutual Insurance is setting up and assigning claims to adjusters as they are submitted by insured farmers. Rural Mutual adjusters will be in touch within 24 hours of a farmer submitting a claim and will set up a time to come view the damage. Farmers are encouraged to submit claims as soon as possible and be specific about the location and extent of the damage.

“I ask you keep our farmers in your thoughts and prayers as they dig out and continue caring for their families, farms and livestock to the best of their ability,” he said.

Okonek recommended farmers with building, livestock or feed losses contact their local U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency office because FSA officials are compiling information for a disaster declaration.

Distinguishing themselves
Before embarking on dispersal, Holschbachs earn Distinguished Holstein Breeder Award
Before embarking on dispersal, Holschbachs earn Distinguished Holstein Breeder Award

MANITOWOC — Mike and Valerie Holschbach are no strangers to receiving accolades.

Since buying Heatherstone Enterprises dairy farm near Baraboo in 1994, after working there as herdspersons the previous 10 years, the couple have left an indelible mark in Wisconsin’s agriculture industry.

Three years into owning the farm, the couple received Distinguished Young Holstein Breeder honors from the Wisconsin Holstein Association. Overall, the Holschbachs have bred 71 Excellent females and developed 99 Excellent females and males, fueling 45 top-five placing in national competitions.

Those achievements, along with numerous other memorable moments and contributions to the industry, earned the couple the Distinguished Holstein Breeder Award at the Wisconsin Holstein Association 2019 Adult Convention here in the Manitowoc County city of Manitowoc.

“It’s always good to be recognized by your peers, and we’re thankful for that,” Mike said. “We counted many of those who were in attendance (at the awards banquet) as our best friends in the industry. It’s not always about the cows — it’s about the friends and people you know who keep you coming back and interested in the industry.”

In a way, the Holschbachs are going out on top.

On April 13, Heatherstone Enterprises will host a complete dispersal of its herd starting at 10 a.m. at S5455 State Road 136, west of Baraboo in Sauk County.

Mike and Valerie said they haven’t finalized plans for the future, but they’re looking forward to spending time with their grandchildren and embracing whatever lies ahead.

“We’ve been pretty busy focusing on preparing our cattle and our facilities to have the best possible dispersal we can,” Mike said. “We will continue to operate the land here, but we had an exit plan that called for us to disperse when we were 60 years old — which we are this year — and we’re following through on that plan.”

That will be a significant change for the Holschbachs, who have been dairy farming practically since they were born. Both were raised on purebred Holstein farms and established themselves as pillars in the agricultural community.

Mike grew up at Lakeside Farms in Sheboygan County and was named Wisconsin Outstanding Holstein Boy in 1978. Valerie grew up at Heatherstone and was crowned Wisconsin’s Fairest of the Fair in 1979. They married in 1981 and both began working as herdspersons at Heatherstone in 1984.

In 1994 they bought the farm and steadily began modernizing the operation. They acquired a TMR (total mixed ration) mixer and calf hutches, set the dairy barn up for tunnel ventilation, constructed a new silo for corn silage and remodeled barn stalls, among other things.

Valerie has overseen raising the calves and ensuring the upkeep of the attractive property, which draws attention from people traveling through Sauk County. Meanwhile, Mike has managed herd health and breeding decisions.

Their breeding philosophy is simple yet highly effective: “We wanted to breed something we enjoyed milking and other people were interested in purchasing,” Mike said.

The couple are quick to point out they couldn’t have been successful without assistance from others. Their three children — Brienne, Chase and Chelsea — helped on the farm while growing up. Chase has continued to play an integral role in daily farm operations and will be transitioning to another agriculture-based occupation after the dispersal, Mike said.

Their strong support network reaches beyond family.

“We’ve surrounded ourselves with good agribusiness people, and that certainly has helped a great deal,” Mike said. “There’s not just a couple of footsteps — there’s a great entourage who have helped us along the way. We have to give credit to them as well. And those good employees along the way who have worked with us.”

The Holschbachs hosted and helped organize the inaugural Sauk County Dairy Breakfast, and they also hosted the 2008 National Convention Sale.

Mike has judged Holsteins in multiple countries and coached the Sauk County 4-H Dairy Judging Team for 11 years, helping it win two state championships. He also served on the World Dairy Expo board of directors for 17 years, including seven years as president.

Mike said the hard-working people he and Valerie worked alongside in their younger years laid the foundation for dedication on their part over the ensuing decades.

“A lot of the results we see are effort driven,” Mike said. “Our family has really dedicated our lives to making Heatherstone what it is. We put in the long hours, up at 3:15 in the morning and working until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. Paying attention to detail. We’re driven by being detail-oriented. I think those things are probably the backbone of our success, along with the people who have supported us along the way.”

Mike offered a few words of wisdom to young farmers navigating their way through the challenges of the dairy industry these days.

“Develop a plan for your future and do as much as you can to stick with it,” he said. “Utilize professionals who can help you along the way — whether they’re lenders or nutritional consultants or whoever they may be. It’s a difficult business and you can’t do everything by yourself. Surround yourself with as many good people as you can.

“And if you are in fact milking cows, we have found that, all along the way, components, high fat, high protein, it was never a bad decision to include that in the promotion of your breeding program. And always put in the effort.”

Water quality, health care among issues discussed at WFU lobby day

MADISON — For the past several years, Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden could count on receiving one phone call a month from a farmer in distress. But he’s found he’s getting those calls a lot more often now. Call are coming in each week instead of each month. Most recently, he received a call from a farmer in Deerfield milking 300 cows; he doesn’t know if he can hang on for another 60 days on the farm.

“There’s a lot that’s happening right now. It’s tough,” said Brad Pfaff, Wisconsin’s new secretary in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “People are figuring out what to do next.”

It’s the fifth year of low commodity prices across the board, with Pfaff and Von Ruden encouraging farmers at the Wisconsin Farmers Union’s Farm and Rural Lobby Day on Feb. 27 to tell their stories to legislators, share how issues are impacting them and get involved at the state level.

There were four main issues that Wisconsin Farmers Union members were asked to discuss with state legislators during lobby day, which saw about 50 people from all parts of the state attend, even with snowy weather forcing some to stay home. These issues were decided on as they were special orders of business passed at their recent convention.

Groundwater quality

For the past six years, Rep. Katrina Shankland has been talking about water quality, and to her dismay, felt like no one at the state level really cared. However, she said the disconnect between the Capitol and the community is now becoming less and less, and she is even more excited that Wisconsin’s new administration is now making groundwater quality a priority.

“Gov. Tony Evers has announced 2019 as the year of clean drinking water and it could not come soon enough,” she said. “It’s thrilling to see the state finally taking action.”

An estimated 1.8 million Wisconsin residents — more than 30 percent of the state’s population — relies on well water as their primary drinking water source. Unfortunately, a quarter to a half of those wells do not meet safe drinking water standards due to excess bacteria or nitrates, as shown in Kewaunee County and in southwest Wisconsin, where a recent study revealed 42 percent of wells tested positive for nitrates. In Portage County, her home county, one in four wells have tested positive for nitrates.

“We’ve got a real problem,” she said.

In early February, Shankland was named vice chairwoman of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, a 16-member bipartisan committee that will travel the state investigating groundwater and surface water contamination, listening to stakeholder concerns and eventually making recommendations on assessing and improving the quality of groundwater and surface water in Wisconsin. In her role as vice chairwoman, she plans to listen to the people, collect the data, publish a report to illustrate the issue and act, finding a policy solution that works into the future.

She has also introduced a private well testing and compensation bill that would create a fund to make private well testing more affordable, increase the number of households eligible to participate in the already established Well Compensation Grant Program for contaminated wells and allow well owners to seek compensation from the fund for wells contaminated with nitrates, even if the well is not used for livestock.

Shankland aims to boost efforts statewide to better understand water, commenting that water quality is both “an education and awareness issue.” She not only wants to make sure residents can remediate their contaminated wells, but also to assure that each household in Wisconsin doesn’t have to worry about a contaminated well down the road.

She’s pleased with Evers’ proposed $70 million bonding measure to fund clean water initiatives through the Department of Natural Resources and DATCP and the approximately $30 million allocation for pollution cleanup, but she cautioned that just because these items are in the budget does not mean they will pass.

“We need you,” she said.

She encouraged Farmers Union members to ask their legislators to support Evers’ clean water initiatives, even if those legislators plan to back a competing budget.

“I can’t think of anything more important to the health of those in our state,” she said.

Health care

Health care is something that affects every single person in the state, but Kevin Kane of Citizen Action of Wisconsin argues that Wisconsin isn’t nearly where it should be when it comes to affordable health care. In fact, Wisconsin is one of the top five most expensive places in the country for health care, and for farmers, among others who are self-employed, the cost is a significant roadblock.

Even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many farmers and rural residents struggle with high premiums, copays and deductibles, among other issues. Kane used the example of Brown County, where there is only one choice for health insurance through the Marketplace.

It’s why his organization has been working hard to encourage legislators to accept federal Medicaid expansion funds and create a public option for BadgerCare, a health insurance program that 700,000 Wisconsin residents currently use. A 2014 referendum in which voters from 19 counties and the City of Kenosha were asked to vote on whether to accept the federal Medicaid funds gathered an approval of 73 percent.

“We have the chance to demand something we know the public wants,” Kane said.

As for BadgerCare, which is currently available to lower-income citizens of Wisconsin, he argues that if made available for the general public, could provide significant cost savings for both the state and those currently buying private health insurance. According to Kane, it could also break up the monopoly of private health care companies and hold the industry accountable.

“Wisconsin could start leading the way again in health care,” he said.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union also supports federal single-payer health care, and imagines the public option for BadgerCare would look very similar to a single-payer system, but at the state level.

Industrial hemp

To Rob Richard, formerly of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, industrial hemp is “an issue that crosses the entire spectrum,” drawing bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats alike. In fact, it’s been a pleasant surprise to him to see who’s willing to work on legislation around industrial hemp, especially after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the once-prohibited crop.

It’s no secret that Wisconsin has a storied history when it comes to industrial hemp production, but times are changing, and there is a new focus on high tech, with endless possibilities for hemp products such as batteries, interiors and exteriors of vehicles, home construction, personal care products and more. It’s sustainable and grown annually, and with the passage of Act 100 last session, is going mainstream.

“We blew the doors off,” Richard said of the number of farmers that participated in last year’s pilot industrial hemp growing season. “The interest is there.”

While significant changes to industrial hemp were found in the farm bill, the biggest “game changer” was the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. It has allowed Sen. Patrick Testin, author of Act 100, and Rep. Tony Kurtz to continue to work with stakeholders from agriculture, industry, law enforcement and the financial sector to craft legislation they’ve dubbed Hemp 2.0, which Richard called “a good, bipartisan bill” that he predicts will receive wide support. Several tweaks to Hemp 2.0 include an option to opt out of DATCP’s confidentiality clause, small changes to definitions to conform to farm bill definitions and the exploration of DATCP using third party testing as interest increases in industrial hemp.

While Richard appreciates the enthusiasm of Testin and Kurtz, he hopes other legislators will show more energy and get more excited about the possibilities when it comes to industrial hemp in Wisconsin.

“In Kentucky, they are proud of hemp and not afraid to talk about it,” he said. “It would be nice to see more of this in Wisconsin.”

Budget priorities

The state budget is front and center for legislators at the moment and is an articulation of the priorities we have as a state, said Kara O’Connor, Wisconsin Farmers Union government relations director. She asked Farmers Union members to select one or two issues that affect them personally and share how those issues impact them, as well as build a relationship with their elected officials and extend a future invitation to events such as farm tours and pasture walks.

Wisconsin Farmers Union supports a number of provisions in the proposed 2019-21 budget, including but not limited to: funding the Farm to School competitive grant program at $350,000 per year; increasing funding for the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program; restoring the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative; increasing funding that will benefit rural schools such as sparsity and transportation aid; funding for UW Veterinary School expansion; a drastic increase in funding for well testing and remediation; an increase in funding for broadband expansion grants; and additional funding for another full-time employee dedicated to antitrust enforcement at the state level.

“It’s our job as citizens to put the pressure on and put them in the hot seat,” said Sarah Lloyd, Wisconsin Farmers Union director of special projects.

“Lots of work is being done today by just being here in person and giving a face to these issues,” added Bobbi Wilson, Wisconsin Farmers Union government relations associate.


Submitted photo  

Jana Swansen of Chippewa Falls, second from right, was named National Western Stock Show Reserve Champion Junior Showman in January at the 113th National Western Stock Show in Denver. Jana is pictured with Gary Krumenauer, her grandfather and owner of Summit Ranch, and Ian McNaughton and his daughter, Kaleigh, of Ontario, Canada, who bought the heifer.