With thousands of Wisconsinites cooped up in their homes until April 24 per Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order, some may be thinking of warmer weather, and in particular, their favorite dairy-centered community event in their county this May and June.
However, plans to celebrate National Dairy Month in Wisconsin’s typical fashion — with dairy breakfasts, farm tours and free milk, cheese and ice cream — are currently up in the air due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, March 20, members of county dairy promotion groups across Wisconsin received an email from Beth Schaefer, regional program manager for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, offering guidance to those groups as they approach June Dairy Month and the date of their scheduled dairy breakfasts and events.
While the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin cannot personally cancel dairy breakfasts across the state as they are planned, organized and staffed by community volunteers, Schaefer did offer this advice: “plan your event and plan to postpone.”
“We are all experiencing the virus very differently depending on which part of the state you live in,” she said. “We’re encouraging dairy promotion groups to have a back up plan and urging them to plan accordingly, whether that be to postpone, cancel or get creative, and not just during National Dairy Month.”
At this time of the year, Schaefer and her team are typically sending National Dairy Month materials to the printer; however, they’ve decided to hold off on printing and distributing those materials as “encouraging social gatherings would be insensitive” during this time. Schaefer added that while the content is ready, with the current uncertainty, the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin decided to hold off on investing dairy check off dollars on materials that may not be used this year.
Instead, the former Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board will be focusing on social media content for April, shining a light on farmers through stories and photography. Messaging will include buy local dairy and buy local cheese to support your local dairy farmer and will be distributed through social media, along with some newspaper advertising, and in their own press releases.
“If they have the opportunity to postpone, we will work with the dairy promotion groups to continue to be cheerleaders for Wisconsin dairy,” Schaefer said.
“Dairy promotion groups celebrate National Dairy Month in June but these volunteers work year-round to promote dairy,” she added. “They are finding an infinite number of ways and although dairy breakfasts are their crown jewel, we have volunteers promoting year-round and are grateful for their support. They are invaluable assets to Wisconsin dairy and we will continue to support these groups.”
Dave Pellett, a member of Dunn County Dairy Promotion, was one of the first to give Schaefer a call with concerns. He and his committee were worried about holding off on planning for the 27th annual Dunn County Dairy Breakfast on Saturday, June 13, at Breezy Haven Farm, although he admitted there was a lot that couldn’t wait until the last minute to be planned.
“We did not want to devote time and expense preparing only to find out that we can’t have our breakfast,” he said.
The breakfast’s hosts, Mark and Lynn Dietsche and Aaron and Heather Dietsche of the Town of Grant near Bloomer, were very excited to host, but as of last week, the Dunn County Dairy Promotion Committee had decided to cancel the June event. Pellett hopes it was the right decision.
“We’re hoping to do smaller pop-up type events for June Dairy Month and celebrate farmers,” he said. “We had a general consensus amongst the committee that canceling the event for 2020 was the safe and proper thing to do.”
He said it helped that the committee was open to holding the event again next year at the same farm, if the host farm agreed.
“They were willing to say ‘yes’ and put it on hold. It makes it easier for us,” Pellett said. “If they hadn’t been so gracious, the decision would have been more difficult than it was.”
Debbie Bauer, program director for the Marshfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said their dairy-centered community event, Dairyfest, planned for May 29-31, is still going on as planned.
“With everything happening, people are still excited about Dairyfest,” she said. “And with the amount of business support as well, it offers a glimpse of hope that there’s a light at the end.”
In its 39th year, Dairyfest encompasses many family-friendly activities, including the Dairyfest Mayor’s Breakfast at the Central Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, an annual YMCA Cheese Chase race, Dairyfest parade and more. It’s a community tradition that brings people together, Bauer said, and what better time to do that than now.
Over 200 volunteers are scheduled to help serve breakfast on Friday morning, May 29, working in two-hour shifts to make sure no one leaves hungry. Many community members eat and then sit and talk with others the remainder of the morning — and it’s something Bauer anticipates there will be more of this year.
“People need each other,” she said. “I’m a believer and an optimist. We have to be optimistic of what the future should hold for us.”
The planning committee has not considered another date for Dairyfest yet, but Bauer was certain if the event couldn’t be held in May, the event would be postponed and a new date would be selected. She added that with the generous support of businesses, they could move the event to another date instead of canceling altogether.
Ironically, this year’s theme for Dairyfest is “Dairy Strong,” something Bauer and event organizers had no way of knowing would be the perfect theme during uncertain times.
“It’s so appropriate,” she said. “We’re truly dairy strong and need to remind people. I think this will unite our community if we can pull it off.”
MADISON — Anton Stokman, a dairy farmer in Friesland, Netherlands, has been farming for over 40 years. Born in Amsterdam, he was drawn to this “beautiful way of life,” and has since added his son, Arjan, to work at their unique 300-cow dairy which in 2009, was chosen as a flagship farm for McDonald’s Europe.
The father-son team shared their experiences with those attending the PDPW Business Conference virtually on March 19. Even with a six-hour time difference between the Netherlands and Madison, those who listened were able to ask questions and learn more about the family farm that operates on a free-choice system that enables their herd to manage their time as they choose.
“It’s a new way of dairy farming with more freedom for us to spend time doing what we want to do,” Anton said.
In 1997, the Stokmans installed two Lely milking robots on their farm. The technology was relatively new, but they immediately shared their experiences with their friends, or “denzo,” as Arjan called them. Soon the Stokmans had a new idea to share with their friends — that of free-choice farming.
“It’s something we thought of ourselves,” Anton said.
By 2010, the Stokmans had recruited four friends to use their free-choice system on their own farms.
“It’s fun to explore this innovation with friends,” Arjan said. “We have no contracts — we just share ideas. It’s fun and economical to work with a group of friends this way.”
While cow welfare and making sure each individual cow is well taken care of is the most important goal on their farm under the free-choice system, the Stokmans also have environmental goals, which include integrating natural areas into their farm; marketing goals and economic goals.
“Having the passion of being a farmer is important too,” Anton added.
The Stokmans try to give every cow in their herd her own choice; it’s something they learned from using milking robots. Cows on their farm have the option of staying inside the barn or going outside the barn into the pasture each day; they also have the choice of relaxing in a water bed inside or a cow bath outside. Each cow also has their own bed if they choose to lay down.
“Cows make different choices; they aren’t all the same,” Anton said. “We see cows making choices on our farm all day long.”
Inside the barn, rubber floor parts make it easier on the cows and slats on the floor allow for urine to easily pass through. Manure is collected and used for biogas, with the farm producing 300,000 cubic meters of natural gas each year. Solar panels on the roof of the barn also align with the Stokmans’ environmentally-minded goals. And with fresh air ventilation along with a daylight schedule, inside the barn, cows remain happy and healthy at the Stokman farm.
The Stokmans also measure ammonia emissions from the barn, as much as every 10 minutes. For the past few months, they’ve also been monitoring methane emissions as well.
“Climate change is an important discussion in the world and the dairy sector has a significant role in it,” Anton said.
He added that Europe and the Netherlands are already rather efficient when it comes to dairy farming but having these measurements available has allowed them to try to influence those numbers through the ration they feed the animals.
In 2009, the Stokmans caught the eye of McDonald’s Europe, who reached out to them through FrieslandCampina, a large dairy cooperative in the Netherlands, which about 85% of the country’s milk passes through. For the Stokmans, McDonald’s focus on sustainability is what attracted them to the partnership, along with three other goals within the program: environmental safeguarding, ethical practices and economic viability.
As a flagship dairy farm, the Stokmans work to improve sustainability on their farm, inspiring others in farming by giving and sharing ideas. McDonald’s does not tell them how to dairy farm but instead helps them tell the story of their dairy farm and explain the practices they have implemented.
They also know when a cow is slaughtered and when it enters the McDonald’s chain, and they can actually follow that cow through the chain until it’s made into a hamburger at a specific restaurant.
“I think there’s a great future in farming if you connect with your customer,” Arjan said. “People want to know how the cows are treated.”
With an mindset that is open to change, the Stokmans have found they can easily explain to consumers how things are done on their farm, particularly how the cows are cared for throughout their lifetime. And their partnership with McDonald’s Europe has also helped in that.
For more information on the Stokmans and their flagship farm, visit https://www.flagshipfarmers.com/en/profile/anton-stokman/.
It was Wednesday night, March 11, and Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, had just gotten home from work. She was already thinking about the limits on gatherings that were being discussed nationally, and with almost 1,000 people pre-registered for the organization’s biggest conference of the year, she couldn’t help but worry.
Then President Donald Trump came on TV, and she stopped everything and watched.
“After hearing him speak, the decision had been made,” she said. “We can no longer hold the PDPW Business Conference in person.”
With so much excitement around this year’s event, Mayer said the dreaded word “cancel” wasn’t an option for the conference that draws between 1,200 to 1,700 people from across the U.S. and globe each year. And with the event always held in March as one last opportunity for dairy farmers to fill their cups with knowledge to take back to their farms, postponing wasn’t an option either.
“It’s always been our culture that we don’t cancel and that we deliver,” Mayer said. “We are dairy farmers and we expect the milk truck to come and the mail to get delivered. It’s just part of PDPW culture that the show will go on.”
“Success and execution was the only direction to go,” added Cassandra Strupp, PDPW program manager. “We had no idea what it meant yet, but we were going virtual.”
Setting aside their panic, the team at PDPW immediately began pulling together, essentially working through their own crisis planning to determine the best way to hold the conference with less than a week until it was to be held. Staff had to find an audio/visual company with online streaming capabilities that would suit their needs; presenters, attendees and vendors all had to be contacted; and a new agenda had to be created as soon as possible.
As Strupp began contacting attendees, she said many were excited that they no longer had to choose between two different sessions to attend as all the sessions would be recorded and available on demand for 60 days following the conference. Some attendees were already in an area that had locked down, so they, too, were excited to be able to tune in virtually. Registrations even continued a few days before the conference as people decided to watch it live from their homes and farms.
“It was amazing and reassuring to see,” Strupp said. “I was pleasantly surprised and excited when I saw the numbers.”
By Monday night, March 16, Mayer knew the system they set up was going to work. Staff connected with each presenter and tested each connection, which was tricky at times as some of the presenters were in different time zones. But the team made it work.
By the following morning, the flowers had arrived at the venue and the stage was set up, with Mayer commenting how it looked like a normal PDPW conference. That visual was just the thing she needed to reassure herself that the show was going on and the conference was actually going to happen.
Attendance numbers are still being calculated, but PDPW staff are calling the conference a success. While they are still helping some members and attendees access the recorded content following the event, staff are excited to check the numbers after two months to see who accessed the content, which content was most popular and at what time of day they tuned in.
“It will be exciting to see those measurements,” Strupp said.
One of the most remarkable things has been the virtual trade show, Mayer added. PDPWPrime, an online catalog of dairy suppliers and their digital storefronts, has seen lots of hits, and it’s exciting for the industry to have this as an option.
For Mayer, just acknowledging “a new way of thinking about doing business” has also served as a learning opportunity. She’s also very grateful for her team, driven by farmers and those with farming backgrounds, who really focused, worked together and found a viable solution for providing important information to those who desire it most — and just in the nick of time, before some of the most intense months of the year for a farmer.
“I hope everyone continues to miss the opportunity we have to connect with each other (though),” she added. “The most valuable resource we still have is how interconnected we all are with each other.”