With fewer family dairy farms scattered throughout the countryside, the job of the milk tester has utterly changed as well.
For more than 30 years, Byron Binstock has made monthly visits to Rainbow Valley Farm just north of Almena on Highway P, owned by three generations of Wohlks, to test milk for butterfat, protein and somatic cell count, an indicator of milk quality.
First brothers Gilbert and the late Calvin ran the farm, then Calvin’s son Glen, who now farms with his sons, Clayton and Kurt, who has his own trucking business, Hay River Trucking.
Each visit, on the first Sunday of the month, includes a courtesy breakfast after the testing is complete.
The breakfast is a tradition that goes back many decades and was a highlight of the month as the milk tester shared news from other farms on his route over a cup of hot coffee and a plate of eggs, bacon and toast.
As the small family farms dwindled, so has the talk around the table, now replaced by blogs on social media.
To compensate for the farms no longer in operation and thus no longer in need of a milk tester, Binstock has had to increase his territory.
In addition to a few remaining area herds, Binstock now tests herds in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, even extending to the western states of Nebraska and Colorado.
He soon trained a crew to take over the milk testing in Colorado as that was a test of his own endurance.
Binstock grew up in a large family on a small dairy farm in Dickinson, N.D., where they had a herd of 110 milking cows and acres of land far and wide.
“I’m the only one out of 12 kids still in the dairy sector,” Binstock said.
After high school, he joined the military and spent three years in Germany. After returning and marrying, he and his wife settled in Richland County, where he took up a milk testing route from where another old tester left off.
“The dairies were so small in the area that I later relocated,” Binstock recalled between bites at a May 5 breakfast at the Wohlk farm.
That relocation brought him to Barron County, settling in the Almena area, and he and his wife have since moved to Long Lake.
“I took over a small route of about 40,” he said. It was about the same amount of dairies as he had before, but there was a bigger population of dairies in the county, he said.
“I built it up,” Binstock said. “It evolved into servicing 104 dairies over an area of 25 miles.”
With wistful reflection, he added, “Less than 10 percent of them are still operating.”
The Wohlk farm is among the few still going strong.
Writing him out a check at the breakfast table, Glen Wohlk said, “It used to cost $70, now it’s $250, and the price of milk hasn’t increased that much. That’s why the small dairy farms are disappearing.”
Fewer farms, larger herds
“It’s just been within the last 15 years that they rapidly began selling,” Binstock said. The milk tester estimates he has lost eight to 10 farms a year due to falling milk prices and the rising cost of operation.
Helping to offset the decreasing number of farms has been the increasing of herd size in the farms that still exist.
Even so, the changing dairy industry has required the milk tester to commute further distances and spend more time of the road.
Thankfully his son Russell, who lives in New Richmond, helps him out with testing in the “western region.”
Currently Binstock tests milk at three dairies in St. Peter, Minn., one of the dairies owns three herds, one with 10,000 cows. He also tests milk from Minnesota herds in Detroit Lakes, Delano and Princeton.
The longtime milk tester came up with a few other changes on today’s dairy farms that farmers a half-century ago never would have imagined.
“Dairies are milking every hour of the day,” he said. “As farms got larger, they needed to maximize their incomes, so they started milking three times a day.”
That change in milking times has prompted a change in his own workday schedule — sometimes starting earlier, other times working later — to accommodate milking schedules.
More diagnostics, faster results
Traditionally milk was tested twice in 24 hours for an accurate sample.
Binstock said he did the twice testing for his first 10 years as a milk tester and was glad when testing became more accurate so one testing was sufficient.
“That allowed us to service more dairies,” he said.
As in other industries, technology of equipment is continuing to improve and get faster. He used to test 5,000 samples a month, now he can do that many in a day.