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The new of today is the old of tomorrow

April 4, 2013 | 0 comments

Maybe it was the sunny, almost spring-like weather.

Maybe it was the end of winter and farmers wanted to get out and kick tires and feel paint.

Maybe it was because farmers and farm folks knew that this was the last major farm show of the season and they wouldn't be looking at displays of equipment, supplies and such until Wisconsin Farm Technology Days next July.

My guess: The big crowds attending all three days of the 2013 Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) Farm Show at Oshkosh last week were because of these reasons and because, as so many visitors and exhibitors proclaimed, "this is the best buying farm show in the state."

The fact that over 20,000 visitors made their way to the EAA grounds in Oshkosh wasn't a big surprise; the show has been a success for 53 years - first at Green Bay and since 2003 at Oshkosh.

From the get-go in 1960 this event has been a winner in terms of exhibitors, visitors and management, and despite the fact that while farm numbers go down, attendance goes up.

The idea for this kind of farm show got its start in Madison in March 1959 when Wisconsin Power & Light Co., at the urging of Wayne Russell, one of their agricultural representatives, initiated the show then called the Farm Electrification and Materials Handling show.

WPS liked the idea and followed with their first show a year later held in the parking lot at Lambeau Field and the Brown County Arena across busy Oneida Street.

In 2003 the WPS Farm Show made the move from Green Bay to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) hangers and taxi ways at Oshkosh.

Yes, there were concerns about moving the big event an hour south, but they proved to be baseless as the crowd came in big numbers.

I'm not sure what WPS expected in 1960 at that first show but I do know that there were some 96,000 dairy farms averaging 27 cows in Wisconsin that year; milking parlors were few and far between, bulk milk tanks were just becoming available and electricity was being used mostly for heat and light.

The fact that farmers had not yet figured out how to use electricity as a true labor saver was the reason the electric utilities maintained the "Electric Farm" near Windsor in Dane County and the Madison and Green Bay Farm shows started.

How times have changed: WPS is now seeking ways to encourage farmers to save electricity while using it as a farm labor saver and basic need. And yes, there are a lot fewer dairy herds today - just over 11,000, but averaging 110 cows

When my dad died at age 84, he said he'd had a great life in that he'd seen most everything important in life invented: radio, TV, cars, combines, tractors, air conditioning, ice cream, overalls, ball point pens, refrigerators, and you name it.

That was 28 years ago - he'd be surprised to see what was on display at this year's Farm Show.

Take the "Robo Rock Picker" that claims to be "The Worlds First Rotary Rock Picker, the fast easy way to pick rocks."

The machine looks like the old egg pail (open with spokes) in which my brother and I gathered eggs, attached to a shaft, powered by the PTO on a skid loader. The idea is that the big, open container can pick up rocks 2-x-36 inches in size, and let the soil fall out. It will hold 2280 pounds of rocks that you can dump into a wagon or pickup.

Kent Roessler, an Anoka, MN farmer, with advice from his four-year old son Ryan, got the idea of using an open, rotating drum to pick rocks and remove the soil by rotating.

This, after some serious thinking and advice from his son "to make it like a rotary combine," Roessler built one, tested it for two years, began marketing it at Farm Fest in 2011 and is now selling to farmers and landscapers.

Brittany Fedder, who was exhibiting the Robo Rock Picker at the Farm Show seemed to always have a big crowd watching a demo video. And why not? If there are two things farm kids (and adults) hate to do it's cleaning calf pens and picking rocks.

This new machine (cost at $4,500 and $5,900) appears to take care of the rock picking. First there was dirt barn floors, then came concrete floors with manure gutters, fork and shovel, then slatted floors that allowed manure to fall into a basement manure holding tank. Now various kinds of rubber and plastic coverings for the slatted floors are on the market.

One such rubber mat that features molded rubber wedges that fit into the slats and grips the concrete is called "Easy Fix." It is sold by AgSourcing International Ltd. in Canada (agsourcing.net) but is made in Ireland.

Several dairymen who were looking at the rubber mat, concluded that it was "something that might work in the holding area of their milking parlor."

They commented that some of the other products they'd looked at appeared to be slippery and not very sturdy. They also noted, as did I, that it was made in Ireland and wondered why, as Ireland isn't a huge dairy country.

Decision-making information

Farmers are often rather "closed mouth" about their financial condition but it was apparent from the amount of buying being done at the Farm Show, that there is some money around.

Exhibitor after exhibitor told me that they were selling "big time" from forage boxes to hanging cow brushes to flag poles.

"Farmers come to this show to buy," a long-time marketer of small farm equipment said. "These are working farmers who come to talk with dealers and manufacturers and who know they can often go home with "show specials" at a good price."

The Meyer Manufacturing, Dorchester, exhibit (forage boxes and a manure spreader) was crowded with groups waiting to talk with Troy Meyer and Tim and Ted Traeder. Ted explained that the crowd was really eager for decision-making information and were interested in buying.

The world of agriculture

As always, farmers also attend this show to talk with dealers and other farmers to find out what is new and to "catch up" with things. As one friend says, "I come to get a feel for what is happening in the world of farming."

What is happening?

Delton Korth, with sons Michael and Marcus, milks 250 cows at New London, sees a good many smaller farmers that do not have sons or daughters involved with the farm as quitting milking a bit earlier than planned.

"They are feeding out their feed and not buying more at high prices," he says. "They will probably quit milking and go to raising crops."

That seems to be a common response of many farmers, meaning one gets widely diverse opinions as the future of farming. Some smaller operators leaving with a bit of regret and disappointment and the expanded herds with multi-family owner-operators thriving and optimistic.

It is fairly evident that this is indeed happening. I talked with dozens of parent-son/daughter families touring the Farm Show together over the course of the three days. In three instances, dad stood back and talked with me as his son(s) looked at equipment.

Each commented that the family farm was turning over: Dad and mother gradually backing off and the next generation assuming more responsibility and ownership.

Of course, that is what must happen for the family farm to continue. The day of dad and mom retiring and selling the farm to the children won't happen if the children are working elsewhere and not already involved in ownership and management. They can't afford to, family wise or financially.

Grain prices were on many farms minds.

"What if corn dropped to three dollars a bushel," a farmer asked? "Would our grain raising industry collapse?"

"This would be a different farm show," his friend commented.

"It would probably help California dairy farmers make more milk," a third said. "But, not us so much, because we raise a lot of our grain."

A friend who I was talking with while watching the crowds at the Farm Show asked me a couple of questions that I'd not been asked before: "Do you think city folks realize how smart farmers are and how they have to be big time buyers of complicated equipment and programs, manage employees, keep detailed records, run million-dollar businesses while milking cows and working land?"

My answer is 90 percent no and 10 percent yes. A few people do understand that farming (even small farms) is big business and requires enormous talent. The others are too involved in their own lives to worry about farmers just as farmers don't spend a lot of time worrying about the plumbers, electricians, government workers or politicians in their lives.

True, few professions require the wide ranging smarts that farmers need to be successful in business. Working ground and planting and harvesting crops isn't so hard," a friend says. "It's the accounting, employee management (family and/or immigrant), insurance, government programs and big dollar decisions complicates our life today."

That which brings up the question of what is success? I think of my dad as a smart and successful farmer who only milked 15 cows, raised 50 pigs and 200 chickens yearly and farmed 80 acres while being married well over 50 years to my mother and together raising three offspring.

Success is also owning 2000 cows, managing 50 employees and putting in a $3 million digester.

Yes, my dad would be surprised at what the WPS Farm Show offered in 2013, but probably not shocked. He'd know, like the 20,000 attendees at the Farm Show know, that the new of today is the old of tomorrow, you just try your hardest to stay even or move ahead and be happy doing it.

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 jfodairy@chorus.net.

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