SURING — For decades, the Hischke name was synonymous with milk hauling.
Eugene Hischke first regularly drove a milk truck on Jan. 1, 1952, as a bright-eyed 17-year-old eager to help his grandparents.
Along the way, his son, Bruce, followed in his father’s footsteps, first hopping in the driver’s seat of a milk truck at the age of 16.
By the time the last drop of milk was unloaded by Hischke Trucking on Dec. 31, 2018 — the family’s last official day of work together before retiring — Eugene had devoted 67 years to his craft and Bruce had dutifully put in another 47 years.
Faithfully supporting them every step of the way was Eugene’s wife, Joyce, who put in plenty of hours herself driving milk trucks and packing lunches whenever needed.
“Sooner or later I guess you have to retire, and I guess this was the time for all of us,” said Eugene, 84. “It’s going to take us some time to get used to this — not hauling milk anymore. It’s what I did almost my whole life.”
Bruce, 63, echoed similar sentiments, saying: “Our family was a cog in the milk production here in Wisconsin all these years, and that’s something we’ll always be proud of.
“I’ll always remember visiting with the farmers and hearing tidbits of news. Or hearing about whoever got their tractor stuck,” he added with a laugh.
On the day they retired, the family was picking up milk from five area farms, compared to 37 during their peak in the 1980s.
The Hischke family’s agricultural roots and respect for farming run deep.
Eugene and Joyce were born and raised on their respective families’ 80-acre dairy farms near the Oconto County village of Suring. Eugene’s family had 15 to 20 mixed breed cows, while Joyce’s family milked 30 black and white Holsteins.
As a youngster, Eugene regularly helped area farmers milk cows. His first hands-on experience hauling milk came as a 14-year-old, when his uncle, Tom Marcks, was sick so his grandparents, Frank and Colia Marcks, asked him to climb in the driver’s seat that day to help collect milk cans from their 20-farm route to Consolidated Badger Co-op in Shawano. The couple started hauling milk in the 1940s.
Eugene became a regular driver for his grandparents starting Jan. 1, 1952. He woke up at 5 a.m. each morning to haul milk, then attended classes in the afternoon. He graduated from Suring High School in spring 1952 with what he affectionately called “a degree in milk hauling.”
In March 1953, Eugene bought his own milk route in Green Valley that included farms acquired from his uncle Tom, who by then had purchased the main milk route from Eugene’s grandparents upon their retirement. Eugene started with about 150 milk cans per day using a 1952 Chevrolet.
Joyce graduated from Suring High School two months later. In 1954, the high school sweethearts — who knew each other since grade school — got married. Bruce was born the following year.
In 1956, the family moved into the rural home still occupied today by Eugene and Joyce. That same year, the couple bought a Suring milk route and had expanded to two trucks.
“I started out just hauling cans for the first couple years, so I figured, ‘OK, it’s going to be like this forever,’” Eugene said. “And then bulk came along.”
The Hischkes transitioned to hauling bulk milk in September 1957, starting with five farms, and by October 1958 the business was hauling only bulk milk. At the peak, Eugene was picking up milk from 37 bulk milk patrons.
In the late 1950s, young Bruce began getting a taste for the family business — literally.
“I used to ride along a lot when I was 4 or 5 years old,” Bruce said, “and I got chocolate milk at the plant. That was my lifestyle. I thought it was fun.”
Bruce began driving milk truck for his family part time in the summer of 1971 at the age of 16. After graduating from Suring High School he took auto technology courses at Fox Valley Technical College for two years, but kept driving part time.
Bruce started as a full-time milk hauler in 1975 (about the same time his grandparents Leonard and Leah Hischke sold their cows and retired from farming). In 1983, Bruce bought his own milk truck and worked in coordination with his parents.
For much of their working days, the Hischkes hauled about 125,000 pounds of milk per day.
They hauled to several different cities and companies in Wisconsin over the years, but Eugene remains fond of his years with Morning Glory and Alto.
Eugene said he’ll most remember “just getting up and going in the morning.”
He doesn’t recall taking a single day off from when he started his own milk route in 1953 until 1964.
“I probably deserved one day off after 11 years,” he said. “That’s just the way it was back then. You hauled every day and didn’t think twice about it. Even if you didn’t feel like it, you did it. You had to. The milk had to get hauled.”
Over time, the Hischkes recruited a couple of dependable drivers to help relieve some of the workload. Mike Clements was a full-time driver for 20 years, and Eugene’s brother, Dale, was a part-time driver for 15 years. Bruce’s son, Klint, also drove part time for a short while several years ago.
Among the highlights of Eugene’s milk hauling career was being included in the 1974 film “Things in Their Season,” a Wisconsin farm-related movie starring Patricia Neal. Eugene and his milk truck were included in one of the scenes. He banked $50 for an afternoon of work.
“I usually didn’t have big movie cameras following me around like that,” Eugene joked.
Eugene has modest plans for retirement — he bought a new chain saw and can’t wait to log hardwood in his 40-acre forest. Up until last year, he raised 15 to 20 steers each year since the mid-1960s; neighbors rent the land now.
Meanwhile, Bruce intends to hunt and fish when he isn’t spending time with his two grandchildren.
And Joyce said she’ll miss one thing from her daily routine. “I’ll miss packing sandwiches and lunches for them every day before they got in the trucks,” she said.
When all is said and done, the Hischkes hope their reputation reflects a family who worked hard, was always on time and displayed pride in the community.
“We’re proud we were milk haulers,” Eugene said.
WISCONSIN DELLS — This past summer, John Wentz had the opportunity to help a neighbor on his grazing operation after he had a knee replaced. Tasked with moving 50 head of Black Angus cattle, Wentz had the challenge of doing it without the help of stock dogs, which he has used successfully on his own sheep operation for many years.
“It forced me to figure out other ways to get them moving when they needed to go,” he said. “Some of the things I would have normally done I had to change because I only had myself and a four-wheeler.
“It really was a handicap for me.”
Wentz has more than 20 years of grazing experience with dogs; he now owns and operates Big Yellow Boots Stock Dog Training, a facility in south-central Wisconsin that specializes in training dogs and their owners for herding.
But before he got his first stock dog, he had no background in dog training — in fact, he owned a Corgi and a Weimaraner, which aren’t exactly the perfect herding dogs. Through attending training clinics, connecting with experts and reading up about the subject, he was able to apply what he learned and retrain a dog he had purchased.
He told attendees of his session at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference that there are many things to consider before buying a stock dog, including purchase cost, shelter, cost of food and how it will be trained. The purchase cost for a stock dog can vary from $2,500 to $12,000 for a fully trained animal, but he advised that a stock dog isn’t like a car — its owner will need to learn how to properly use the dog.
If a grazier is thinking about purchasing a dog and using it on their operation, he recommended attending training clinics, even before buying the animal. Wisconsin seems to have more training clinics for dogs than any other state, Wentz said, and they can be looked up online by visiting the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association website at wwsda.com.
“Find a clinic or someone near you that trains dogs and go and watch,” he said. “You may not learn anything, but you’ll have lots of questions.”
Wentz also read a lot about stock dogs and how to train them, suggesting two books that served as great resources for him: “Lessons from a Stock Dog — A Training Guide” by Bruce Fogt and “A Way of Life: Sheepdog Training, Handling and Trialling” by Barbara Collins and H. Glyn Jones.
“Read them once and read them again,” he said.
He also recommended connecting with someone who has used stock dogs on their grazing operation who may be able to offer tips on training.
“If I hadn’t connected with someone, I wouldn’t be nearly where I’m at with it today,” he added.
Proper training for a herding dog is extremely important, with Wentz reminding those in attendance that the dog is an employee of your operation — one that doesn’t call in sick, although it may be late a few times. A properly trained dog can be a huge asset, providing the help of as many as five people when it comes to wrangling livestock on small operations.
At his facility, Wentz uses a round pen for training purposes, something he recommended graziers who are training dogs should have to keep everything under control during a training session. It has proved especially useful for the handlers he has worked with as most of them are hobbyists who train their stock dogs for competition.
“It takes a fair amount of time to train one, but try to stack the deck in your favor from the beginning by selecting the right dog,” he said. “Then the trick is raising the dogs properly.”
RICE LAKE — The market for sheep and goats is strong, but prices and the needs of buyers for ethnic markets can vary widely, according to Al Stager, market manager at Equity Cooperative Livestock Sales in Barron.
“It all depends on what buyers come in,” says Stager, who launched a monthly sheep and goat sale last May after elimination of the Equity lamb pool. “There’s no consistency, and it can change quickly. I cannot tell you what the markets are.”
Speaking Feb. 2 at the Indianhead Sheep and Goat Breeders Association’s Small Ruminant Clinic and Trade Show in Rice Lake, Stager said it pays for producers to watch the ethnic markets and holidays, and call ahead before bringing animals in to sell.
“If you’re marketing your lambs and want real top prices, pay attention to a lot of the different events going on,” he said.
Going into Easter, the market wants 70- to 80-pound animals for the ethnic market, he said. In July, buck lambs are sought for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Ethnic markets tend to want intact males, and they’re worth more at certain times; at other times, they’re discounted. Stager said Barron has various regular buyers coming from the Twin Cities area.
“They’re looking to buy and not scared to spend money,” he said.
Stager said markets change often. For example, they currently have “nowhere to go” as far as selling 30- to 40-pound baby goats. With the old lamb pool, bucks were discounted, but on the live auction for July, they have gone higher than wethers.
“It all depends on what buyers come in,” Stager said. “It is all over the board.”
The same 180-pound Boer goat might go for $2.80 per pound or $4, depending on the season and buyers present. The same buyer might want 100-pound ram lambs one week but need 200-pound ewes the next.
“Variability in that comes back to the holidays and which requirements every of those holidays have within that religious sect,” said Logan Edenfield, market manager at Equity in Stratford. “Work with whoever is going to market your livestock essentially all year long, because it does change so much.”
Ethnic markets vary widely, he said, but the bigger packers tend to be more standard. Most buyers don’t want anything with more than a quarter-inch of backfat, as customers don’t want that extra fat; it’s also inefficient to produce those kind of animals.
Barron’s monthly sales have been going very well, Stager said, with recent prices on the live sale about double what they were in the lamb pool. Four different sheep buyers attend the sale regularly, and they’re working on a fifth, he said, but the volume has to be there, as they want a potload. The Barron market typically sees about 600 head at sales but has had as many as 625 head available.
“We’ll try to keep doing that,” he said of the monthly sale, and starting this fall, they might increase frequency to twice a month. They also take sheep and goats on Mondays and Wednesdays, but markets generally aren’t as “hot” on those days.
“It has benefited everybody by starting the live auction,” Stager said. “We hope to keep that going with strong pricing.”
Stager said it’s to sellers’ advantage to bring in a uniform load, as some buyers like to purchase a large group. Also, animals won’t shrink as much if the producer already has sorted them, as they’re less stressed and will weigh more.
Considering their proximity to the Twin Cities, Stager said there’s plenty of room for growth in the monthly sales at Barron.
“We moved 2,700 head of sheep through Barron last year,” he said. “There’s more around here than I expected.”
Along with their regular livestock sales, they host a small animal sale in the spring and are considering a spring machinery sale this year.
Equity in Stratford also offers sheep and goat sales, starting at 11 a.m. every Wednesday, Edenfield said. Their volumes usually aren’t as large as at Barron, but sales have been good.
Edenfield and Stager said it helps them to know ahead of time if a producer plans to bring a certain number of animals to market so they can notify potential buyers and get them in place. It doesn’t matter if a producer has five animals or 50 to sell; it’s to their advantage to call ahead. Optimum lead time is one week.
“Advance notice benefits everyone,” Stager said. “It’s good for us, the buyers and producers.”
Edenfield said Stratford can get two to four different buyers in, if they know ahead of time what producers plan to bring in. If they know in advance, they also can negotiate with buyers and move animals outside the sale barn atmosphere, perhaps getting a higher price and avoiding the possibility for disease transfer.
He encourages producers to “get out of your barn every once in a while,” see what’s available on other farms and at sale barns and ask questions.
“Watch your animals sell,” he said. “If you’ve got a question, that’s the time or day to ask ... what happened. It’s best to get any issues fixed before the animal is gone, even.”
Stager said there isn’t much of a market for organic sheep and goats at this time. Equity facilities are not certified to take them in, so they would need to be marketed outside the sale barn environment.
“We’re not seeing any premium because there’s not enough volume to justify any packers to get into it too far,” he said.
Other topics at the Small Ruminant Clinic included a sheep and goat industry forecast, labor-saving ideas, fencing, record-keeping, artificial rearing of lambs and kids, wool and brush and pasture management. Several youth participated in a skill-a-thon.
The ISGBA celebrated the 25th anniversary of its annual clinic this year. Often featuring some of the mostly highly regarded sheep and goat experts in the U.S., the annual clinic draws more than 150 people from four states.
The event began as the Indianhead Sheep Breeders Association’s Shepherd’s Clinic and was first held in the auditorium of the Barron County Courthouse. In 2017, ISBA members voted to include goat breeders and the name was changed to ISGBA. Subsequently, the Shepherd’s Clinic became the Small Ruminant Clinic.
At this year’s clinic, the ISGBA awarded its Extra Mile Award to newsletter coordinator Desiree Nelson of Ogilvie, Minn. Tim Jergenson, retired Barron County UW-Extension agriculture agent, received the Friend of the Association Award. Jergenson and his wife also raise a large flock of sheep near Barron.
Scholarships were awarded to David Thompson and Blake Johnson. More than $7,000 in scholarships has been presented since the program began in 2009. Essay contest winners were Lauren Thompson and David Thompson.
The ISGBA consists of more than 135 members, mostly sheep and goat producers in 22 northwestern Wisconsin counties. A Spring Sheep Shearing School is set for Saturday, March 16, at Lambalot Acres near Augusta. The ISGBA Spring Sale will be Sunday, April 7, at UW-River Falls.
For more information, visit www.indianhead sheepandgoat.org.