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Dairy Strong Conference celebrates industry, innovation

This was first time Green Bay has hosted the annual event

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January 24, 2024

GREEN BAY — For the first time ever, the annual Dairy Strong Conference was held in Green Bay — after previously being held in Madison.

With an attendance of more than 450 people, the two-day conference focused on learning more about the industry’s latest innovations and celebrating its collaborations.

Dairy farmers representing 280,000-plus cows, industry experts and representatives from allied businesses attended the event earlier this month, which is organized by the Dairy Business Association (DBA).

The event consisted of keynote addresses, panel discussions and presentations on numerous topics, including sustainability and technology.

One of the speakers — Thomas P.M. Barnett, a strategist and best-selling author — noted that the world’s growing middle class could increase demand for dairy products, but to reach them, the United States will need to take steps to sell its “brand,” around the world.

“The world’s middle class is growing fast and you want their brand loyalty so they’ll purchase your products,” Barnett said.

As one of largest producers of dairy products in the U.S., Wisconsin dairy plays a significant role in the industry, and the advancement of it.

Dairy Strong organizers said the focus of the conference — this year’s theme being “Growing Stronger Through Sustainability” — was to help farmers discover the challenges and solutions experienced by other farmers in regard to sustainable agriculture.

Dairy Business Association President Lee Kinnard said the event has been a hub of information for all those involved in the dairy industry in Wisconsin and throughout the entire Midwest for more than a decade.

“The name Dairy Strong speaks to the dedicated and resilient people who make up our dairy community,” he said. “Dairy is never short of challenges, but we continue to overcome them through innovative, forward-thinking solutions.”

More than one location
One of Dairy Strong’s panel discussions looked at how some dairy farmers are growing their business by adding a second site.

Across Wisconsin, 47 dairies have more than one location — including the state’s largest family-owned dairies, Pagel Family Businesses.

Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, LLC has run multiple sites since the early 2000s.

JJ Pagel, who runs the Kewaunee County-based business with his siblings, said each site’s operations manager and team members meet weekly to discuss what’s going on and different topics.

JJ said the dairy, which milks around 11,000 cows and farms about 15,000 acres at its different sites, has also embraced technology allowing Pagel to view key information, such as milk production, from an online dashboard.

“The dashboards are helpful since I can’t be on every farm at the same time,” he said. “I can use my phone to get a snapshot of what’s happening at each site.”

Jordan Matthews, a partner at Rosy-Lane Holsteins, LLC., in Watertown, said the dairy milks 1,750 cows at two sites.

This was the first year the conference was held in Green Bay, previously being held in Madison. Photo Courtesy of Dairy Strong

The operation crops about 2,200 acres on its original Ebenezer Drive site, mixes their feed and then trucks it over to its second site in Paoli.

“This opportunity came up to expand by adding a second site, and we decided to take it on and see where it leads us,” he said. “You need to look at different situations and then decide what’s best for the farm. For us, it is cheaper to take our own feed over to the other farm than buy it from the co-op and have them take it over there.”

Brent Czech, who runs New Heights Dairy, LLC, in Rice, Minnesota, said he expanded his parents’ original dairy to now include four different milking sites and a central calving facility.

“For me, the biggest change was when we went from one dairy to two,” he said.

Czech said communication was key initially — because employees working directly with the cows didn’t always want to “bother” him, since he was busy.

“We now have one herdsman who has built up the workers and the communication is so much better,” he said.

Cover crops
Conservation was the topic of several presentations, including one on cover crops.

Cover crops are smaller plants, such as rye, clover and other groundcovers, that are planted alongside a main crop, such as corn, to improve soil health.

The plants help prevent erosion and slow the movement of water over the surface.

Farmer Jeff Gaska said he integrates his 35-head cow/calf herd operation into growing corn, soybean, wheat and rotational grazing on 450 acres in southwest Dodge County.

After each crop is planted, Gaska said he goes back and adds a cover crop.

For example, he said, after planting corn, he will go back and sow a cover crop, such as rye — keeping careful track of what he plants and the yields to help inform future decisions.

Gaska said he planted grass on some of his less productive land and wants his cows out grazing as much as possible.

“That lowers the feed cost, and we don’t need to worry about the manure hauling since they are out in the fields, adding nitrogen to the soil,” he said. “It’s also better for the animals to graze.”

Mike Berget said he plants seeds on his farm in southwest Wisconsin using the no-till method on 95% of his 10,300 total acres.

No-till farming, he said, decreases erosion, especially on sandy or sloping fields.

Berget said he also uses cover crops and has seen his corn yields increase since.

“I often talk with our (Universities of Wisconsin) Extension agent who has good suggestions about different varieties to try,” he said. “For example, I never thought of oats as a cover crop, but we tried it and it worked.”

In addition to his farm duties, Berget also serves as the director of the Lafayette County Ag Stewardship Association, a farmer-led nonprofit that shares and promotes conservation practices.

Sustainable supply chain
From receiving seeds and equipment to selling their milk to processors, who in turn sell finished products to food manufacturers, the dairy industry plans a major part in the supply chain.

As the world pays more attention to climate change, sustainability is playing a larger role in the supply chain and therefore in the dairy industry.

Holly Jones, director of global sustainability at Appleton-based Agropur (a dairy processor and food ingredient supplier), said customers are asking more about a farm’s carbon footprint — how it is being measured and what steps can be taken to lower it.

“The major food manufacturers are looking at the entire process their products go through and are concerned about the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere since that’s a question their consumers are asking about,” she said.

Evan Grong, dairy ingredients sales manager for Valley Queen Cheese Factory in Milbank, South Dakota, said farmers are interested in sustainability initiatives and when a customer reaches out about projects to limit the release of carbon, the overall dialog has been good.

He said Valley Queen uses the Farm EMS model to measure a dairy’s carbon footprint, but it’s not exact.

“They are looking at a new formula but the key is to find the right balance,” he said. “You want to gather meaningful data, but you don’t want to overwhelm the producers.”

Jones said large food manufacturers have road maps of where they want to be regarding their carbon footprint and oftentimes reach out to Agropur for help in achieving those goals.

“That’s not something we are used to,” she said. “Many farmers don’t have projects lined up that they want to try so we provide them with a menu of options they can pursue.”

Jones said Agropur has grant funds to help farmers with their projects.

With many dairy farms taking residence in rural communities — many who work in dairy are also community leaders, serving on boards for their schools, towns, counties and numerous other organizations.

With this in mind, the Dairy Business Association and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin unveiled a new honor — the Community Builder Award — at this year’s conference that recognizes dairy men and women who prioritize building trusted relationships with their neighbors and the surrounding community.

The inaugural recipient was Doug Grotegut — the co-owner and -operator of Grotegut Dairy Farm Inc., a third-generation family farm in Newton, which milks about 3,500 cows and manages around 3,350 acres of land.

Doug Grotegut — the co-owner and -operator of Grotegut Dairy Farm Inc., a third-generation family farm in Newton — was the inaugural recipient of the Community Builder Award at this year’s conference. Photo Courtesy of Dairy Strong

“I really enjoy sharing my farm with everybody,” Grotegut said. “Reach out to people. It’s not just your farm, it’s your community. Do whatever’s right to help out.”

Emphasizing his involvement in hosting the Manitowoc County Breakfast on the Farm, which drew thousands to the farm and educated the public about dairy farming in Wisconsin, Chad Vincent, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin CEO, said Grotegut was selected for his continued dedication to his community and Wisconsin dairy.

“His efforts to engage the public, promote sustainable farming and actively engage in community events make him — and the entire Grotegut family — a remarkable recipient for the first Community Builder Award,” he said.

Kinnard, who presented the award to Grotegut, said the Community Builder Award is a testament to individuals’ or families’ role as a pillar of the community — exemplifying leadership, responsibility and a deep-seated commitment to their community.

“(Grotegut) perfectly exemplifies what it means to build and give back to your community,” he said.

The Dairy Business Association also honored Tom Crave from Crave Family Farm in Waterloo — which is home to 2,100 milking cows, 1,400 heifers and more than 2,500 acres of cropland — with the Advocate of the Year Award.

Tim Trotter, DBA’s chief executive officer, said the award recognizes individuals for their role in shaping Wisconsin’s dairy community.

The Dairy Business Association presented Tom Crave from Crave Family Farm in Waterloo with the 2024 Advocate of the Year Award. Photo Courtesy of Dairy Strong

Crave, who said he firmly believes in implementing sustainability practices and technologies on the farm, including reducing tillage and crop rotations, said the Crave farm added a manure digester that has provided power for more than 300 area homes and reduced methane emissions.

“Iím very honored — this means quite a bit to me considering that it comes from my peers and a very worthwhile organization,” he said. “I appreciate everything DBA does for the dairy industry, and I am proud to be part of it and to be part of the voice of dairy farmers in Wisconsin.”

Trotter said Crave’s leadership for Wisconsin dairy and our farmers cannot be overstated.

“Tom has testified before countless committees, hearings and other meetings with lawmakers and thought leaders,” he said. “I cannot think of another figure more deserving of this award than him.”

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