More than 550 farmers, nutritionists and industry partners recently attended the invitation-only 2015 Leading Producers Conference, Jan. 6-7 in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, to address everyday challenges that have a huge impact on today’s diverse dairy farms.

Freelance Writer
Maria F. McGinnis is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.

In all, nearly 230 farms across five states were represented: Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Farmers attending the event milked an average of 784 cows on their farms, with a total of 174,774 cows represented.

The event opened with Dr. Greg Bethard from G & R Dairy Consulting Inc., whose presentation “The Keys to a Good Profit and Loss Statement” focused on feed, labor and replacement costs from a cost-per-hundredweight (cwt) perspective.

Seminars during the two-day conference balanced foundation topics like transition cow management, herd health and calf care with innovative topics like rumination collars, genomics and the use of big data.

Dr. Amy Stanton

After closing the books on a record year in 2014, dairy farmers across the country are bracing for impact in 2015. The overarching theme of economics and cost vs. benefit was felt throughout the conference.


Dr. Amy Stanton from the University of Wisconsin – Madison presented on the challenges and opportunities associated with group housing for calves as well as illness detection.

“It’s easy to find someone to feed calves, but it’s hard to find someone to care for calves,” Stanton said.

Thomas Thibodeau

Stanton emphasized the importance of recruiting people who have desirable personality traits to care for calves, such as compassion, patience and attention to detail. Previous calf experience isn’t a must, and the right person can be successful with solid training.

Matt Repinski from WinField and Todd Vogel from Riesterer & Schnell/John Deere presented on the value of “big data” in cropping decisions.

Through proprietary tools like the R7 Tool and data from the Answer Plot program, farmers can collect data (with the help of a WinField rep) from their fields and create a customized “prescription” that makes recommendations on seed variety, fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides.

Jim Swagel and farmer

The resulting data can be used with John Deere planting and application tools to fully execute the prescription. Repinski and Vogel agreed that the WinField data tools complement John Deere’s current equipment line and encourage farmers to test them and draw personal conclusions.

In addition to the educational value of the event, the Leading Producers Conference is an excellent place to network with like-minded professionals. There were even several future professionals in attendance, including Krysta Burghardt, a student from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls.

“Twelve students from three universities were invited to attend to learn more about the dairy industry and network with potential employers,” Burghardt said.

The conference closed with a captivating presentation by Thomas Thibodeau, who directs the Master of Arts in Servant Leadership program at Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wisconsin – the only one of its kind in the nation.

Conference attendees“We do everything in our lives for love,” he said. “Why have you done all this work? Because you love it.”

Thibodeau spoke about the importance of service to others, using words to show appreciation and “being present” as the key characteristics in successful leaders.

“Ernest Hemingway said that ‘courage is grace under pressure’ – take the time to celebrate the good stuff,” Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau urged listeners not to view each other as competition – even in today’s competitive dairy industry.

“Be there for each other, don’t look at each other as competitors,” he said. “Let’s push together; it’s just too hard to push it alone.” PD

Maria F. McGinnis is a freelance writer based in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

PHOTO 1: Brian Staudinger from Blue Royal Dairy in Reedsville, Wisconsin, and Corey Brown from Sunburst Dairy in Belleville, Wisconsin, take time to socialize during a break at the Leading Producer Conference.

PHOTO 2: Dr. Amy Stanton addresses a packed house about the management and welfare challenges of growing healthy calves.

PHOTO 3: Thomas Thibodeau from Viterbo University closed a successful two-day conference with his presentation on the importance of servant leadership.

PHOTO 4: Jim Swagel, dairy nutrition specialist for United Cooperative in Hillsboro, Wisconsin, chats with a familiar farmer during a break at the Leading Producer Conference.

PHOTO 5: More than 550 people attended the Leading Producer Conference from 230 farms in five states, representing 175,000 cows. Photos courtesy of Maria F. McGinnis.