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A story of dairy innovation, not once but twice

July 15, 2014 | 0 comments

It was an unimposing building located in a sort of industrial area on the outskirts of Rhinelander — no company sign and stuck in a lot with other nondescript buildings including an auto body shop. In fact, I might never have found the place if my host Rolf Reisgies had not guided me in via cellphone.

Rolf Reisgies? Yes, the very same Rolf Reisgies that many dairy producers say revolutionized milking cows and who developed and owned Germania Dairy Automation in Waunakee from 1973 until 1997 when he sold the company to DeLaval.

I had long planned to visit Reisgies at his Technology for Agriculture (TechForAg) company that he started in 2001 after what he says was "a few years of miserable retirement."

Of course his reemergence into the dairy scene has not been a secret. I wrote about him and his "new" company back in the spring of 2006. He does some media advertising, and word of mouth travels far and wide.

My trip "up north" a few weeks ago gave me the opportunity to be close to Rhinelander and a opportunity to visit Rolf and learn more about his latest endeavor, which of course is selling remade and new milking parlors and the pieces and parts to run them.

It's what is inside

At first look, the building (inside) looked like a metal fabricating shop, which it sort of is. Stretching down the center of the building was a stripped-down milking parlor.

"That's the basics of a Double 30 Germania parlor about 20 years old that I bought in New York," Reisgies said. "Interestingly, it has been purchased by a dairy producer who lives close to the original owner, and we have a tight deadline to get it ready."

Although the double 30 parlor was stripped to the core, all the equipment and electronics will be in place when it is installed in its new home and, in the words of the company, "will be darn near as good as new."

A big array of metal fabricating equipment, shelves, tables and bins scattered about the building hold the parts (new and used) needed to make a reconditioned Germania Parlor or, beginning in 2006, to construct, as described by the company, "an all-new Germania-style, industrial strength, Heritage Milking Parlor that is built almost 50 percent heavier than the original Germania. Why? Because we buy Germania Parlors, analyze them and then improve on the original."

Many dairy farmers are probably not aware that some older Germania milking parlors can be sold — if they meet the standards of TechForAg — or that they can buy reconditioned Germania milking systems from the company.

Yes, both are possible, all because of the innovativeness, smarts and entreprenuerial expertise of one Rolf Reisgies who has an intriguing story. 

From Germany to the top

A young Rolf Reisgies came to the United States from Hanover, Germany, with an engineering degree to attend Michigan State University. After two years, he joined Stay Rite, a pump company iin Delevan that had purchased the Perfection milker company. Two years later, he was hired by Manager John Dahl and joined Dairy Equipment Company and BouMatic in Madison.

After two and a half years, Reisgies left DEC to work on his efforts to develop his own milking equipment, specifically, compressed air operated milker takeoffs.

"I had always worked with electronic takeoffs used by all the milking machine companies," he said, "but felt that the use of compressed air offered advantages."

Reisgies worked out of his home basement by himself for a year or so, and in December 1973, started Germania Dairy Automation. (Fortunately, his wife, Florence, a school teacher, brought home a regular check, he said.) 

On-farm research

"I sold my first milking system to Duane and Jim Skaar who farmed together near Nora in eastern Dane county — after I did a lot of research on their farm," he said.

Although the Skaar brothers went their own ways in 1986, they remember those days well. 

Jim and Nola Skaar told how Reisgies would bring new milking equipment to the farm and use it in the herd, often staying overnight, sleeping on the couch and watching the morning milking. "He'd go back to his basement and work on changes," Nola remembered. 

Duane and Dorothy Skaar also remembered they eventually bought a Double 6 Germania. "We got a great price from Rolf because of our involvement in his research," Dorothy said. 

"We still had a Germania parlor when we sold our herd in 2006," Jim said. 

"I was going to sell only the one product — the takeoffs — that could be installed on any milking machine," Reisgies said. 

For a couple of years, he traveled dairyland, especially California, with little success, until he met John Bos, a Chino, CA dairyman who bought 24 units. "He was my first real customer," Reisgies said.

Germania grows

Ralph Rottier, a BouMatic engineer, and Charmaine Jagodinsky, Waunakee, joined the company to run the Madison office that had several locations over the years, finally locating in Waunakee. By the late 1970s, Germania had 125 employees and was expanding.

The farm depression of the late 80s slowed dairying a bit, but Germania survived, grew and became well known as the premium parlor in features (compressed air takeoffs, new style claw and all stainless construction) and in price.

In 1997 Germania was sold to DeLaval, and Reisgies retired to a lake at Rhinelander — until the day he received a fateful call from a DeLaval representative who was in the process of selling a new and bigger milking parlor to a Kansas farmer who wanted to trade in his Germainia parlor. 

A new start

DeLaval has no trade-in policy for milking parlors, but the salesman thought of the now-retired Reisgies, called him and suggested he buy the old unit. 

"No, I'm retired," Reisgies remembered saying. "But, I was getting bored with retirement. After more discussion and hearing the price, I wrote out the check."

Soon, he had more used Germania parlors, a building in Rhinelander, a couple of employees and, in April 2001, Technology For Agriculture LLC was born.

Used Germania parlors — the only kind used because of their never-rust stainless-steel construction — are hauled to the factory where they are refurbished, modularized, marketed and installed in dairy operations around the U.S. and world.

"We sold about 1,000 new Germania parlors over the years, most of which were stainless, meaning they don't really wear out," Reisgies said. "Thus, we can take them apart and put them back together, after making them modular, so they can be easily installed. We've sold some 75 parlors so far."

A vision and a visionary

Rolf Reisgies has done some fascinating things: developed and owned Germania Dairy Automation for 24 years; sold to DeLaval and retired; and started a new company, TechForAg, that buys old and sells "almost new" parlors, makes new Heritage parlors, offers parlor layout services and much more. The extensive website tells the story (techforag.com).

He is one of the few people I know who has had a major impact on dairying, not once, but twice, and is still going strong. He started with a vision that continually expanded for the good of food providers called dairy producers — a truly amazing feat. 

John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him atjfodairy@chorus.net.

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