Farm Horizons, May 1997

Ottos: farming isn't like it used to be


Taking over the family farm ­ doing so is a source of pride among sons and daughters. Continuing a legacy parents and grandparents worked hard to build.

In just under 15 years, farming has also experienced some of its greatest changes.

Alan and Steven Otto purchased the family farm from their parents, Ben and Irene, in the early 1980s.

The farm, located at the corner of Highway 7 and McLeod Co. Rd. 9, is a landmark for directions to Plato. "You hear a lot of people say turn at the brick house," he said.

When the brothers bought the farm, Ben and Irene were ready to retire, but Alan and Steve wanted to keep farming. "We grew up on the farm, we like to be our own boss, and we like to work outdoors," Alan said.

How dairy farming has changed since the Otto brothers took over the farm, Alan said he didn't have any idea it would be so much.

The Ottos milk 54 head of cows and have finishing hogs. They are in the process of placing the equipment in a new finishing barn. They will be able to house 550 hogs when done.

Their farm is one of only two left in the 10 miles between their home and Plato. The number has steadily declined since the Ottos purchased the farm.

"I remember when there were dairy cattle on every farm (along Co. Rd. 9)," he said.

"Dairy farming isn't like it was years ago. You used to have something left (from the milk check). Now when you pay the bills, it's all gone," Alan said. "In eight, 10 years, the price of milk hasn't kept up with the cost of machinery and inputs."

Over the last 10 years the Ottos have consistently been paid $1.19 per gallon of milk.

"You have to keep an eye on expenses, cut feed costs, and get the premium for good quality milk," he said.

When the Ottos bought the farm, Alan said he could see chicken and hog farms increasing in size. He didn't think dairy farms would go the same way. "I didn't think we would lose so many . . . that caught me by surprise," Alan said.

The lack of milk price increase, Alan said, is what spelled the end for many.

"A lot got out because of health reasons, their knees and back were bad. But others, the buildings got old and they couldn't afford to replace them, so they just got out."

Government rules and regulations also made improvement costs too expensive for some farmers.

"Thirty cows used to be the average herd. Now the push is for 500-head herds," he said.

The push is an economic one. It is more cost effective to sell feed in large quantities. Those who can buy the large amounts receive a discount not available to the smaller operation. Large farms can also battle low milk prices by selling more quantities.

The equipment, Alan said, has gotten bigger and more sophisticated. Much of the new equipment isn't able to be fixed in the machine shed. It needs a mechanic, adding another cost to the already higher ticket price.

In turn, farmers must run more acres of land to justify the equipment costs.

In terms of biogenetics, what is being accomplished in seed research is positive for the farmers. Disease-resistant alfalfa and some of the latest corn borer-resistant corn was unheard of only a few years ago.

As technology continues to make strides into farming, Alan said the farmers have to rely on specialists, such as an agronomist.

Technology has also reached into the dairy herds. Twenty years ago, a 15,000-pound herd was good. Now with new inputs and advances in nutrition a 20,000-pound herd is not uncommon.

The Ottos have purchased some technology for their own farm. In 1990, they installed a total mixed ration feeding system. The system moves the feed with conveyers and augers and measures it.

After the installation, Alan's dad was watching the new system. "He said if he had to feed cows that way he would give them baled hay."

Another change Alan finds disturbing is Minnesota and Wisconsin losing ground to California and the southern states as the highest milk producers.

Alan said he has no idea if his kids will take over the farm. Right now they are at the age where they want to farm - like their parents. Alaina is 8, Jacob, 6; Michaela, 4; and Joseph is 2.

Despite the challenges and changes, when asked if he would do it all over again, Alan replied, "Yeah, I probably would."

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