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Story Publication logo May 28, 2019

‘It Ain’t Fun Anymore’: Auctioneers Are Busy Selling Off Dying Wisconsin Dairy Farms

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Dairy farms—Wisconsin's economic engines—have been decimated in recent years due to decreased demand...

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Robert "Stretch" Hull, foreground, directs a cow in a pen while Cory Bidlingmaier looks for bidders during an auction at the farm of Dale and Marsha Ryan in Belleville. The Ryans sold off their dairy livestock and feed and will switch to farming corn, beans and some beef cattle. Tom and Cory Bidlingmaier, second and third generation auctioneers, view the current situation as an agricultural depression. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

A project in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as part of the…
Robert 'Stretch' Hull, foreground, directs a cow in a pen while Cory Bidlingmaier looks for bidders during an auction at the farm of Dale and Marsha Ryan in Belleville. The Ryans sold off their dairy livestock and feed and will switch to farming corn, beans and some beef cattle. Tom and Cory Bidlingmaier, second and third generation auctioneers, view the current situation as an agricultural depression. This ongoing project by The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is part of the Pulitzer Center's 'Bringing Stories Home' initiative. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

BELLEVILLE - On a bracing spring Wisconsin morning, third-generation auctioneer Cory Bidlingmaier plies his trade, the rhythmic chant of his sales pitch rising and falling like the gusts of wind sweeping through from the north.

His voice speeds up and eases back, the words and numbers running and rumbling until a deal is going, going … gone.

Taking it all in, Dale Ryan leans against the hood of a pickup truck.

Surrounded by neighbors and buyers — about 40 people in all — he watches Cory and the B&M Auctions team put his hay and herd of dairy cows under the hammer.

Dale’s life has been this dairy farm. Now, the auctioneers are moving a dairy cow every 60 seconds.

His family isn't giving up farming. They remain in the crop farming business, growing corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, while also doing custom work harvesting crops for others. They'll also switch to a new herd of beef cattle.

But dairy? They're done with it.

Wisconsin lost 503 dairy farms in 2017 and 691 dairy farms in 2018. This year, as of May 1, the state had lost an additional 302 — essentially two-and-a-half dairy farms a day, or 96 more than last year at the same time.

Dairy farmers are in crisis — and it could change Wisconsin forever

Farmers cling to a dream that, for some, has become a nightmare.

Family farms are at the mercy of trade wars, economies of scale and a complex pricing system.

A worldwide glut of milk continues to drive down the price farmers receive, to the point that many barely break even or lose money. In 2018, for the third straight year, Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies — most of them family dairy operations, which have been a staple of Wisconsin life for generations.

The dairy industry has weathered hard times before, Cory said, farmers unable to make the math work amid low milk prices.

"We've seen this in the past, numerous times," he said. "But in the past, there were always signs that pointed to better times. But today, there are no signs pointing to anything better. We're losing farmers at a high clip."

Cory said when farmers are doing well, money is sprinkled through the rural economy — truck repairs, equipment upgrades, simply taking the family out for a meal. When farmers struggle, so does the rest of the rural economy.

"Most of the farmers we're talking to are losing $500 a day before they get dressed," Cory said. "Every day they put the feed in the cow they're losing money. Every time they turn that farm light on, they're losing money at current prices."

'Something is wrong'

Cory and his dad, Tom, make their home in Green County, a rolling slice of rural Wisconsin around 40 miles south of Madison.

They go where they're needed — nearby, across the state or into Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Illinois. Whatever the item, they'll find a market: cows, milking machines, skid loaders, tractors, trucks, cars, lawn mowers, homes, antiques and collectibles. They once auctioned a plane.

B&M Auctions was handed down from Tom's stepdad, Cory's grandfather.

It continues to be a family operation. Cory and his dad run the auctions. Cory's mom handles the books; his wife helps with transactions on auction days. And Cory's two sons often help, scampering around like calves.

Cory worked the auctions as a youngster, helping his father. The auctioneer's chant is something he grew up with and then perfected through hours of practice.

In 1997, he enrolled in a course at the World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa. The weeklong course taught him the ins and outs of the trade, from laws to licensing, advertising to selling. The state exam for auctioneers consists of 80 multiple choice questions on statutes, administrative code, basic math and federal guidelines on gun sales. To keep up their licenses, auctioneers are required to take 12 hours of continuing education every two years.

"My grandpa told me 20 years ago to go find something else to do, this is a dying profession," Cory said. "I looked around the neighborhood and said, ‘Yeah, there's more dairy than you think.’ "

That’s less true today.

"When you go down the road, you used to see cows at every farm — every mile, two miles was a farmer," Cory said. "Now, you might drive 20 miles without seeing a cow."

He is proud of the work done by his family, whether it’s in good times or bad. The Bidlingmaiers don't just come in on the day of the auction. They're back and forth to the farms, making sure the sheds are clean, the cows and tags match, the machinery set up just right.

"I'm fussy," Cory said.

In this season of uncertainty, business is brisk. There may be a downsizing or a divorce or even a death. The stress on dairy farmers is crushing, and for many, options are few. It may be time to settle up or sell out.

"It’s a struggle," Cory acknowledged. "It’s a depression. We talk to people who start crying in front of you. I talked to a guy a few weeks ago. He’s fourth generation (dairy farmer) outside of Monroe. He said, ‘I’m going to have to sell, I can’t make it.'

"Fourth generation and you can’t make it? Something is wrong. Something has to change."

Until then, the Bidlingmaiers take the calls, knowing they may be the last step in a long journey.

"Unfortunately, when the agriculture world is in a crisis, we get busier," Cory said.

That doesn't mean profits are rising, though. An auctioneer is paid on commission, and the market for dairy cows is weak.

"Our margins aren’t any better," Cory said.

They're also aware of the finality of their work. In the past, if one farmer was getting out of the business, another was buying in or expanding. "It was like a carousel," Cory said.

Now, when an operation closes, it's the end of dairy on that land.

"It used to be fun selling cows," Tom Bidlingmaier said. "I was just telling a buyer here today, I said it ain’t fun anymore. I said you sit there and you beg on the cows and you feel bad for the farmer. I mean, this is his life’s savings."

He passes no judgment on farmers who need his services.

They didn't do anything wrong, he said. "They did the exact same thing for the last three and four years that they did for the last 50 years, and it just goes down."

Even auctions have changed

The auction business has changed over the years, too.

Jerry Thiel, chairperson of the state's Auctioneer Board, said when he started 45 years ago there were around 1,200 licensed auctioneers in Wisconsin.

Now, there are 526, according to figures from the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services.

"I'm third generation," Thiel said. "My dad and grandfather had auctions every day of the week, all farm auctions back in the 1940s."

Thiel used to do two or three farm auctions a week, now it might be two or three in spring or the fall.

"If you're relying just on farm auctions, you're going to be making less than you did a few years ago because the price of machinery and cattle are way down from what they were," Thiel said.

Auctions have also gone online in the last 12 years, said Jeffrey Hines of Ellsworth-based Hines Auction Service. He is currently president of the Wisconsin Auctioneers Association, a trade group.

"I had a farm sale last night, online-only versus live," he said. "We run through a bidding platform and it stays up online two to three weeks. We have open houses where people get to see the tractors. We had a sale started at 6:30 p.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m."

"We have apps now, you bid right off your phone," he added. "It's the slickest thing I've ever seen."

Slender margins, hard work

Dale Ryan’s dad started farming the 165-acre spread in Belleville in 1970. Back then, the acres beyond their farm opened as far as the eye could see. Now, houses are planted nearby on fields that have become subdivisions.

Dale is 58. His wife, Marsha, is 54. Their son, Scott, 28, lives across the street with his family, and their daughter, Kacie Case, 32, lives 18 miles away in Evansville with her family. There are 12 grandkids to keep Dale and Marsha occupied.

Dale said the family wasn't losing money on dairy. They had a ready market with a cheesemaker.

But the slender margins and hard work stretched them.

"You know if the milk price would have been higher it would have been a tougher decision," Dale said. "But I definitely think it's the right decision. So I actually think it is a blessing that this has happened."

Marsha and Kacie handled the milking of 60 cows, Kacie getting up every day at 4 a.m. to make the journey from Evansville to help with morning milking and then returning in the afternoon after the kids got home from school.

"I think the main thing, from April to December, Scott and Dale aren't here a lot, they're doing fieldwork," Marsha said. "And my daughter has four kids and they're getting to the age where they're in sports, so she needs time off. And I don't want to do it alone."

Selling the herd would also allow Marsha to get a job off the farm.

The day before the auction, the family was calm.

Marsha and Kacie said they didn't know how they would feel once it was all over.

"You know," Dale said, "I've gone to sales for years and it's surprising how fast, with a little dairy like ours, how fast those cows leave."

'The terms are cash'

The morning of the auction, Ryan’s farm resembled a tiny county fair.

Pickup trucks filled the driveway and spilled into a pasture. A homemade snack bar took over the garage, one table filled with doughnuts, another laden with hot dogs, hamburgers and salads.

Bales of hay were stacked in the barn.

"Come on in, Dale, I'll introduce you," Cory said, pulling the farmer in front of the crowd.

He reeled off the rules of the auction. "The terms are cash," he said. "Pay for it before you load. If you are here to buy cows, make sure you have the right cow in your load."

He sold off the feed in the barn first, and then it was out to a field to sell off more hay — Cory riding in a trailer perched in the bed of a pickup truck.

"We are now under audio and video surveillance, for my protection and yours," he said into a microphone, his words echoing from a small loudspeaker.

The hay moved briskly. Then it was back to the barn, where metal gates helped form a makeshift ring.

Dale Ryan and his son Scott set up next to the barn. Marsha Ryan and her daughter Kacie worked inside because, despite the auction, milking needed to be done.

Tom Bidlingmaier took over for his son and talked up the herd.

"Just a popping set of cows," he said. "Buy ’em with confidence. If you see a flaw in the cows in the ring, tell us. Once I say, 'Sold!' you own the little lady."

His son brought the first cow into the ring.

"This cow was milking 48 pounds, twice a day," Tom Bidlingmaier said. "She's an awful sweet guy. She's the right size. She ain't going to eat you out of house and home."

The auction was fast and furious. The bidding? Less so. The first cow sold for $1,175, about half what it might have brought in better times.

It went this way for an hour, Tom Bidlingmaier talking up the prospects — "An old girl, still putting it in the pail for you" — the buyers slow to respond. 

"You guys in the front, we're going to have to charge rent for standing in the sun," Tom said, gently chiding some reluctant bidders.

In the end, about a third of the herd went for $600 to $800 each, another third for $800 to $1,000, a final third for $1,000 to $1,300.

Lonnie Krebs of Blanchardville bought 10 cows that he'll integrate into his family's dairy herd.

"Milk prices have just gone bad for so long," he said. "We need some replacements. If you want to stay in this business, you need more cows."

Keeping it in perspective

With the auction over, the farmers quickly loaded their animals.

Dale said he was satisfied. Maybe the prices weren't what he wished, but he was ready to move on, take up another challenge on the farm.

"I was happy the way the thing sold and I'm just ready for the change," Dale said later. "We hated to see the cows go. But everybody is good with it."

Cory had been uneasy about the sale for weeks.

"A lot of our best buyers weren't here. Our very best buyer, I talked with him late last night. I pleaded with him to come. He would have bought two, maybe three loads. He said, ‘I've got other things I've just got to get done.’ "

"You start fighting fieldwork, you can't get the guys out of the field," he added. "Dynamite will not get them out of the cornfields, the hay fields."

Still, he tried to keep the sale in perspective.

"This herd, through the years, has paid for everything you see out here. They don't owe this family a penny. And Dale and his wife understood that. Whatever they bring, they bring."

Kacie was out in the barnyard, still absorbing the long morning. The dairy herd she milked twice a day for years had been dispersed.

How did she feel?

"Relief," she said, wiping her brow.





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