EAST DUBUQUE, lL
Have you ever heard this in a conversation with a dairy farmer? "I'm going to do everything I can to discourage my kids from being dairy farmers. It's a miserable life, all work and no time off. No sir, I'm going to make sure they do something else where they don't have to work so hard and can make some money."
I've heard this too many times and too often and every time I hear this kind of conversation, I almost want to cry.
Chances are the talker never wanted to dairy farm in the first place but only did so because of family pressures or because of a lack of intestinal fortitude or ambition to make a change early in life when he could.
The result was a life of misery and casting blame on everyone and everything that he perceives has caused him problems while watching relatives, neighbors and friends grow their farms, modernize their businesses and semi-retire at an age in which they could travel, vacation and enjoy life.
Then there are the dairy farms where sons stay on as employees in hopes they will eventually inherit the farm but dad and mother will not turn over responsibility or progressive ownership fearing that the son will do things differently than they have done for the last 50 years.
In both cases, the dairy farm will eventually be sold to another larger family operation or to a doctor, lawyer or businessman who wants a rural home and will rent the land out and the former family dairy is no more.
Then, there are the so-called large or even mega dairies — multi-generational farms where the sons and daughters are stockholders or partners at an early age. The farm operation has become a corporation (probably an S Corp. or an LLC) with the young generations assuming ownership as the parents look to retire.
Blue Star Dairy at DeForest, Wayside Dairy at Greenleaf, Larson Acres at Evansville, and Statz Brothers at Sun Prairie are but a few of the hundreds of multi-generation, expanded family dairies across the state that come to mind. Most every one of the larger dairies started small and grew only when a new generation was added.
Berning Acres at East Dubuque, lL, is a family dairy farm that looked to the future and made plans to ensure their family dairy would continue into the future.
John and Ellen Berning moved to their current location in 1973. "I was the ninth of 10 children in our family," John says. "We had to look elsewhere if we were going to dairy."
It so happened that Ellen's father, a cheesemaker at Tenneson, WI, had purchased a 140-acre farm located just over the border in Illinois, from his uncle.
John says, "There were 30 cows, 16 sows and a few chickens and we became renters on a 50-50 basis."
In 1975 the Bernings bought the farm on land contract and over the years grew their family to five girls and two boys. Ellen took care of the cropping while John was the dairy master. At the same time the farm grew in acres and cow numbers.
Son Matt, the baby of the family, had farming on his mind and attended Southwest Technical College at Fennimore — one year in the dairy management course and two years studying agricultural business.
In 1999, the family made their first move to serious herd expansion by building an 80-cow freestall barn. Two years later, a Double 8 milking parlor was added, in 2003 another 50-cow addition was made and in 2006 another 120-cow addition went up bringing the herd to 300 milk cows.
"We were a bit hesitant to expand at first," Ellen says. "But Matt had good ideas and we had faith in him. I remember him putting his arm around me when we built that first free stall and saying 'don 't worry mom, we'll make this work.'"
The first full-time employee joined Berning Acres six years ago, Ellen remembers. "John was in the hospital with a hernia operation and Matt and I were milking," she says. "A car with a family of four Hispanics inside drove into the yard looking for work. The father was working in a restaurant in Dubuque and didn't know how to milk but was willing to learn."
That worker is still in the Berning milking parlor six years later and along with three other milkers is milking the herd on a three-time-a-day basis.
About nine years ago, Sarah Daugherty, then a nutritionist for the Cuba City Mill, began working with the Berning family. Long since owner of her own Daugherty Consulting LLC, Sarah has a dairy management degree from the UW-Platteville and a Masters from Texas A&M. For two years prior to owning her own business, Sarah worked as an instructor in the Dairy Herd Management and Farm Business Production Management programs at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College.
While she works primarily with the herd nutrition programs she does a lot of other things, Matt explains. "We have staff meetings (along with breakfast) twice a month," he says. "Sarah always has new ideas and leads us along new paths."
Regular staff meetings are very important," Sarah adds. "You must take the time to discuss and plan."
"You can't be too busy to take time to plan and make changes," Ellen says. "And, you can't be satisfied with being average."
The Bernings farm some 550 acres of owned and rented land and hire a lot of custom help. "We do some of the tillage and cut the alfalfa," Matt explains. "We own a Kelly-Ryan bagger for our hay."
Some other aspects of the Berning Acres dairy include: The addition of a GEA automated calf feeding system a couple of years ago resulting in bigger and more healthy calves; yearly classification of heir all registered Holstein herd; and use of a Select -Detect heat detection system that makes breeding easier for Matt who does all the breeding.
The result? A rolling herd average of just under 29,000 pounds of milk.
Matt and his wife Natalie (a grade school teacher in Dubuque) are the parents of children ages 4, 3 and 15 months.
The Berning family is most pleased with the changes they have made in their dairy operation over the years. "We're very fortunate to have listened to Matt's ideas and we had faith in him," Ellen says. "Our farming life has become better and easier."
To ensure a continuation of the family dairy, the family recently formed a Chapter S Corporation with Matt buying the personal property and livestock over a 10-year period. That will be followed with another agreement on the land that he currently rents from John and Ellen.
The family worked closely with an attorney to formulate the family succession plan after seeing and hearing about family farms that ended with the death of the parents.
Ellen and John are so pleased that they made the decision to bring Matt into ownership and making the changes. "If we hadn't' done so, we'd be doing everything the old ways; working too hard and like a lot of dairy farmers, tired, crippled and discouraged," she says.
The Berning family is not looking to expand further — at the moment. However, they will look to the future, not to the past and aren't afraid of change. "And, we never forget, the Lord made it all possible," Ellen says. "Be sure to mention that."
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 e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.