More than 800 dairy farms went out of business in 2019, according to numbers released Jan. 6 by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Wisconsin Field Office.
Wisconsin lost a total of 818 milk cow herds in 2019, bringing the total number of dairy herds in the state to 7,292, according to numbers based on data from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Division of Food Safety Dairy Producer License list.
“That really is a huge farm loss,” Director of Dairy Policy Analysis at the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability Mark Stephenson said Jan. 9 during the Western Wisconsin Ag Lenders Conference in Eau Claire.
The state started the year with 8,110 dairy herds after losing 691 herds in 2018.
“As we got into 2017, declining prices that we had been experiencing were starting to impact producers, and we started to see a higher level of exits,” Stephenson said. “That rate increased in 2018 and 2019 now we’re at this 10% level.”
Dairy Extension Outreach Program Manager Mark Hagedorn said that the past five years — during which time the state has lost more than 3,000 dairy herds — have been an exceptionally difficult time in the industry but that things could be turning around for the farms that remain.
“Farmers have gotten so good at producing milk because they’re taking so much better care of their cows,” Hagedorn said. “But when you have too much of anything, the market reflects that.
“We lost herds and we lost cows, but the cows that we lost were probably slated to be lost due to the inevitability of the industry. And the cows that remained went from basically living in a four-star hotel to a five-star hotel, and that promoted more milk from them.”
Hagedorn said that in many cases, well-managed operations have been able to hang on, and in some cases expand, during this extended downturn in dairy prices.
“Farmers were seeing that it was difficult to support two families on 50 cows, so we were seeing them expand to 200 cows and a nice free-stall, and in many cases, that was enough,” Hagedorn said. “And because they love the lifestyle that comes with farming, many farmers were willing to hang on. When you take a look at return on investment, most businesses want 10 to 15%. Dairy farmers, if they can get 3 to 5% back, because it’s a lifestyle they love, they’ll keep plugging away.”
While it came too late for many, dairy farmers did finally see a little relief in 2019, with milk prices reaching highs not seen in five years.
On Jan. 2, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the December Federal order Class III benchmark milk price of $19.37 per hundredweight, $5.59 more than what they received in December 2018.
“Milk prices look like they’re rebounding,” Hagedorn said. “It seems like we hit the bottom of the trough and we’re scratching our way back up the hill. Now, is it enough to fix the ails of the past several years? Probably not. But at least there is light at the end of the tunnel. And the industry needs it.”
Stephenson said that, in addition to improving prices, there are other reasons for optimism in 2020. Stephenson said during the December Program on Dairy Markets and Policy outlook video that he’s hearing reports of inventories of storable dairy products being down all over the world, which could support better prices in the next year.
“I think we’re going to start to feel some of this world tightness of milk supplies, and we’ll have more opportunities for the sale of our own products,” Stephenson said. “I’m encouraged by what I see longer term. It’s going to be better than what we saw (in 2019).”
However, Stephenson said that the recent uptick in milk prices may not be enough to completely stop the exodus of farmers from the industry.
“We aren’t going to be able to declare victory and say our farm attrition is done now,” he said Jan. 9. “This has got some long tail on it.
“We’ve got farms that balance sheets are badly enough damaged that we’ll have to find a graceful exit for them. I think that we’ll have a higher than average attrition rate continuing over the next several years.”
WISCONSIN DELLS — After a four-day selection process for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become an ambassador of Wisconsin agriculture and continue the tradition of the county fair, one contestant was crowned 2020 Wisconsin Fairest of the Fairs last Wednesday night.
“This feels like a dream and it’s really incredible to be standing here right now,” Cayley Vande Berg said Jan. 8 after being named the winner of the 2020 contest.
Vande Berg represents the Fond du Lac County Fair. She explained how her days as a youth in 4-H, showing everything from pigs and dairy to foods and home improvement projects have prepared her for the role she will hold for the next year. For 10 years, she was a member and leader of the Eldorado Busy Bees 4-H Club and also held leadership positions in her high school FFA chapter as well.
Vande Berg is a 2017 graduate of Laconia High School and is currently a junior at UW-River Falls. In May 2021, she will graduate with a degree in dairy science and has ambitions to pursue a career in which she can share her passion for cattle and people.
“My dream would be to become Milk Source’s first ever female herd manager,” she said. “I also plan to utilize my bachelor’s degree to help educate the public about agriculture, advocate for the dairy industry and assist dairy farmers with their needs.”
She also has a goal to become fluent in Spanish, as she works and interacts with many Spanish-speaking herd staff at Rosendale Dairy, arguably one of Wisconsin’s largest dairy farms with 9,000 head of cattle.
At Rosendale Dairy, Vande Berg is responsible for diagnosing, administering and recording treatments for fresh and hospital cows, along with assisting with difficult calvings and providing care to 40 newborn calves each day. Shortly after beginning with Rosendale Dairy, she also began working alongside their public relations team, giving tours and educating guests from ages 5 to 98.
Serving as Fond du Lac County’s Fairest of the Fair has provided Vande Berg with many unique and valuable opportunities, she said. From marketing the fair at community events, speaking to a variety of groups and welcoming fairgoers, she has enjoyed being the face of the fair and is looking forward to her new role as 2020 Wisconsin Fairest of the Fairs.
“I did not imagine this outcome but it’s amazing,” she said. “It feels incredible and doesn’t really feel real yet. I think it will take some time to sink in.”
Mikaila Falash, representing the Adams County Fair, was named runner-up in the contest. Falash is an Adams-Friendship High School graduate and is currently working toward degrees in Elementary Education and Teaching English as a Second Language at UW-Stevens Point. She is also enlisted in the Army Reserves as a Human Intelligence Analyst.
Following Falash as second runner-up was Lauren Flynn of the Rock County Fair. Flynn is a 2019 graduate of Janesville Parker High School and is currently studying Finance, Investment and Banking at UW-Madison.
The third and fourth runners-up were Jessica Moor, St. Croix County Fair; and Emma Buss, Lafayette County Fair. Other contestants named to the top 10, listed in no particular order, included Alissa Maier, Northern Wisconsin State Fair; Sarah Deheck, Sheboygan County Fair; Hannah Taylor, Lodi Agricultural Fair; Jenna Breitenfeldt, Wisconsin Valley Fair; and Olivia Kamps, Brown County Fair.
When she was crowned last year, outgoing Fairest of the Fairs Meghan Buechel made it a personal goal to promote the fair as a place for all. With a background in microbiology, she began her farewell address by explaining how as a scientist, she developed a hypothesis around this thought that Wisconsin fairs are for all and how over the past year, she executed her experiment with wonderful results.
“It was my observation that Wisconsin fairs have a very genuine way of bring people of all walks of life together,” she said. “And perhaps they bring out the best of us too.”
Buechel shared the stories of several fairgoers and fair supporters she met over her summer, traveling from fair to fair across the state of Wisconsin. She spoke with people of all ages and quickly learned that fairs are a great place for friends and even strangers to become family.
“A year ago, I never would have known how to answer what the best part of the fair is,” she said. “It is every single person within them.”
She encouraged everyone in the audience to take a moment to greet a stranger at the fair this coming summer, challenged them to learn something new and to enjoy every aspect of Wisconsin’s fairs and agriculture.
And above all, “always remember to share that Wisconsin fairs are for all,” she said.
For more than 35 years, dairy snowbirds have flocked to the Florida State Fair for the Dairy Old-Timers Breakfast, and for more than 20 years Larry Hawkins of Evansville has had the February event blocked off on his calendar.
Each year 15 to 20 states and Canada are represented for the “good old-fashioned get-together,” which takes place this year on Feb. 14, with breakfast at 7:30 a.m.
“The first time I went to it 20 years ago, I ran into people from the county in Ohio where I grew up,” Hawkins said. “We used to show together at fairs, so to run into them all those years later in Florida was just kind of a neat thing.”
Hawkins, who retired from Byron Seeds but now does some work with Forage Innovations (“I was retired, but now I’m doing some things.”), plans his annual trip to Florida so he’s in the area for several weeks at the time of the breakfast.
Kerri Lefler, agribusiness coordinator with the Florida State Fair, said the event has been drawing between 40 and 50 attendees the past several years.
“We get a lot of people coming down to stay in Florida during the winter time,” Lefler said. “They’re not all fully retired. We have a couple from New York who helps with the event who are semi-retired. Their kids run the farm while they’re away in Florida, and then they get back to helping on the farm when they go back north.”
Attendance peaked for the event at about 100 several years ago, Lefler said. But with so many people from colder states visiting Florida in the winter, Hawkins said he would like to see attendance climb back to those levels.
“There’s a lot of new people coming down there every year,” Hawkins said. “We’d like to see some new faces and maybe some new traditions started.”
The breakfast is on the 355-acre Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Florida. Following breakfast, attendees will hear a featured speaker and then have the opportunity to attend the State Fair dairy show in the show arena. Dairy judges Nathan Thomas, the owner of Triple-T Holsteins and Jerseys in North Lewisburg, Ohio, and Dale Chupp, co-owner of Chupps Guernsey Farm in Inola, Oklahoma, will be joining the group for the breakfast, Lefler said.
The 2020 Old Timer’s Breakfast kicks off with coffee and greetings to old friends and new acquaintances, according to a news release for the event.
There is a $15 charge for breakfast that includes admission to the Florida State Fair and parking. Attendees are requested to pay by cash or check when they enter the fairgrounds through the livestock gate on Orient Road on the east side of the grounds.
“It’s a heck of a deal,” Hawkins said. “It’s just a great get-together, and we all walk down to watch the dairy show, and you get to park right in the middle of the fairgrounds.”
The 2020 Florida State Fair runs Feb. 6-17 at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Florida. To register for the breakfast, contact Karen Walker with the Florida State Fair Authority Agribusiness Department at 813-627-4339. For more information, contact Gary Mithoefer at 317-225-9025 or Hawkins at 608-516-0101.