Madison Magazine's Person of the Year: The Dairy Farmer
The worst drought in decades brings Dane County’s rich and varied agricultural community into sharp focus. Dairy farmers in particular have been hit hard, but surviving—even thriving—in hard times is all in a day’s work.
MM sidebarBy: Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz
Jeff Endres snaps his flip phone shut and climbs out of his pickup, offering his hand in polite greeting. There’s an earnest crease on his brow tucked just beneath a red ball cap, his white T-shirt already work-stained by late morning. He’s so soft-spoken you have to lean in to hear him against the constant thrum of the dairy farm that beats like an enormous heart, a living, breathing thing. A calico kitten shoots out of the calf barn and fiercely weaves itself around his dusty brown boots. I nod toward the lush-looking crops across the road and tell him how healthy everything looks to me, how vibrant and alive, when just a month ago all the world seemed scorched, choked spikes of browns and yellows.
“Yeah, it’s kind of misleading,” Endres says, thoughtfully. “The damage has been done in a lot of it.”
We’re at the tail end of a drought year, the worst in decades. After a strange winter without a single school snow day, summer showed up three months early with eighty-degree weather in March. Farming is a constant guessing game anyway. Everybody does things a little bit differently, and so some guys gambled and planted early, thinking they could eke out an extra harvest. It might have worked, too, if the rains had come, but they didn’t, not for months. Early crops were lost entirely, current crops are yielding maybe half what they would have, and most everybody is short on feed, meaning they have to dig into last year’s inventory or buy more in a seller’s market. It’s too early to tell what the final score will be, but current estimates show that up to seventy percent of Dane County crops used to feed cows have been lost this summer. For some farmers, it’s flat-out devastating.
“Right now the dairy segment is facing probably the worst economic challenges of any commodity,” says Pam Jahnke, the radio commentator better known to some as the Fabulous Farm Babe. “And that’s because milk prices are a little bit softer than we would hope, and feed costs are so incredibly high.”
Endres doesn’t yet know what his total hit will be, but so far his purchase feed costs are up thirty-five percent. He won’t have excess corn to sell like he usually does, which will take another fifteen percent off his bottom line. The real financial impact won’t be known for at least another six months, maybe even a year. It all depends on so many unpredictable things—weather, feed costs, crop yields, herd health, milk prices—but farming has always been this way.
Endres owns Berry Ridge Farms in equal parts with his brothers, Steve and Randy. So much has changed since their great-great-grandfather John, a German immigrant, staked a farmstead here, building the tiny St. Mary of the Oaks Chapel out at nearby Indian Lake Park in a bargain with God to spare his kids from diphtheria. The deal worked, and today these brothers are the fifth generation of farmers, operating 1,150 acres of cropland, mostly forage crops for feed but also cover crops to protect the environment, a practice in which Endres is considered a leader by many county officials. He’s part of the Clean Lakes Alliance community board in Madison, as well as president of the Yahara Pride Farms board, a group that just organized a five-farm winter seed aerial drop as part of a county-funded drought initiative that will ideally feed cows for forty-one families and protect the Lake Mendota watershed at the same time. Endres is a huge believer that farmers can have a tremendous impact on enhancing the environment, but that the movement has to come from them. And that no matter what you do, “Mother Nature has the last word,” he says.
Like most Wisconsin dairy farmers in the 1950s, Endres’s parents milked a barn full of about sixty cows. Endres, now forty-seven, joined them straight out of high school. When the brothers decided to band together to run the family farm they expanded steadily over the years, first to a hundred cows, then 220, and now 350. Another 350 or so young stock are housed in the old barn waiting their turn, and a sleek new free-stall barn and milking parlor with an upstairs office sit just up the driveway on the hill above it. Between the three men they’ve got nine kids; eight of them girls, all of them “very interested” in farming and two now old enough to study dairy science, one at UW–Madison and one at UW–Platteville. The brothers employ about four people on the farm, splitting the operation in three parts: Randy is in charge of the feeding, a process that takes four hours on a good day. Steve supervises the milking, now three times a day instead of two, just as in many modern dairies, since they built the parlor. Jeff is in charge of the crops.
A lot of dairy farm families have gone this route to stay profitable, particularly in the last fifteen to twenty years, due to game changers like technological ad-vances, a new, more distracted generation and the ravenous ethanol market driving up the cost of feed. Jahnke says consumers might complain about the cost of milk at the grocery store, but they don’t realize farmers themselves get only about fourteen cents for every dollar spent on ag commodities.
“I saw numbers the other day that said dairy farmers growing their own feed are paying about fifty-five cents a gallon just to feed those cows,” says Jahnke. “That’s pretty incredible. That means there’s not much margin left to pay for electricity, hired help, equipment, retirement, debt, all the rest of the stuff that goes in on the average business’s bottom line.”
The number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has shrunk dramatically in recent decades, from 30,000–40,000 statewide to fewer than 11,000 today. Many smaller farms have closed or consolidated into larger operations but, despite public perception, remain family owned and operated. In fact, almost ninety-nine percent of dairy farms in Dane County are family owned. Some of them have just gotten really, really big.
Luckily—or, more accurately, deliberately—Wisconsin’s agricultural infrastructure, a thick web of independent farmers, agribusiness, governmental agencies, cooperatives, producer groups and a land-grant university system with a farming mandate, is built to withstand change and support a steady evolution. And guys like Endres are at the forefront of innovative practices credited with cleaning up the county for everybody, including restoring Madison’s lakes—most of the time at great personal expense—all the while running complex, locally owned businesses in a multibillion-dollar industry that’s helping keep Wisconsin afloat through an ugly economic time. And still, despite the dairy industry’s omnipresence, there’s a good chance you’re sitting at home right now thinking, what’s all this got to do with me?
A few years ago I was jogging along the rural county road near my home when I stopped short for some errant cows in the road. After a brief, blinking standoff and some wild but failed gesticulating, I padded down the gravel driveway and knocked on the farmhouse door. “Your cows are out,” I smiled at the farmer, helpfully. He squinted past me, then quickly swiveled back, a look of annoyance darkening his face. “Those aren’t cows,” he said, incredulous. “Those are heifers.”
I’ve lived in Wisconsin farm country most of my life, though never on a farm. It’s the miles and miles of green that make me feel most at home, the comfort of hay curls rolled tight against the plains, the loamy scent of freshly tilled dirt. I speed past farm after farm on my commute to Madison several times a week, as do many of you—farmers own or manage seventy percent of Dane County’s land. And yet, for the most part, the only conscious contact I have with farmers is when I’m stuck in a mind-numbingly slow lineup behind a tractor. As a kid, if we wanted to spend the night at my best friend Carrie’s house we had to earn our keep, hauling milk pails in the mucky barn, picking stones from the field or throwing bales of hay down from the mow—and yet I still had to Google “heifer versus cow” after that run-in with my neighbor. (She’s a heifer until the day she gives milk, by the way. Then she’s a cow.) The truth is I eat more than my fair share of milk and cheese, but I know embarrassingly little about the dairy industry. And I’m not alone.
“That disconnect is nothing new,” laughs Jahnke. “That’s what keeps me in business, that’s what keeps me a viable journalist.”
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