Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed day-to-day life for Wisconsinites in many ways. But for dairy farmer Bryan Voegeli, much has remained the same.
“Our obligation is to take care of the animals every day at 4:30 in the morning, seven days a week whether it’s COVID-19 or 40 below or a holiday or whatever,” he said.
Voegeli’s farm, established in 1854, occupies about 1,300 acres between Monticello and New Glarus. When Voegeli’s son eventually takes over, he will be the 6th generation of dairy farmers there. They have about 250 milk cows in their registered Brown Swiss herd, and supply milk to a cheese cooperative and a yogurt company, both in Wisconsin.
But even though the day-to-day act of operating a dairy herd hasn’t changed much since mid-March, the pandemic has posed huge challenges for the already struggling dairy industry. As schools, restaurants and food service businesses have closed, some Wisconsin dairy farmers have been forced to dump milk.
Voegeli, 61, has been lucky in that regard so far. His farm has been able to reduce production by making adjustments to feed and drying up cows, or stopping their milk production, early. He has not had to dump any milk yet.
But some of his friends have had to dump thousands of pounds, he said. It’s especially painful at a time when milk prices were just starting to go up after several years.
“In our small corner of the world we were just starting to get through one set of difficult times, and now obviously like everyone else we kind of got hit with another,” he said.
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Last week, Gov. Tony Evers announced the state will use $50 million of federal coronavirus relief funding for direct payments to farmers. Farmers will apply for the aid through the state Department of Revenue and could receive payments as early as June, according to a press release.
Voegeli’s farm also sells dairy cow genetic material, so industry shows and conferences are an important part of the business. The World Brown Swiss Conference, planned for this fall in Madison, has already been postponed. World Dairy Expo, which Voegeli is involved in and is also held in Madison, is expected to make a decision on this year’s gathering by July. It makes Voegeli worry about the future.
“Our family has been through a lot,” Voegeli said, noting that the farm has made it through the end of the Civil War and two World Wars.
“But I can tell you, in my lifetime this is probably the first time that I felt really challenged to know that I’m in control of where our destiny is going,” he said.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.