“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, Minn., where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” — author Garrison Keiller

Among the producers featured in this month’s issue of Dairy Herd Management, John Pagel particularly impressed us.

Pagel lives in a pristine area of Wisconsin where rolling hills reach down to meet Lake Michigan. The landscape is dotted by dairy farms — their neat-and-tidy exteriors made all the more appealing on a spring day by blue skies and the burst of green vegetation. With apologies to Garrison Keiller of Lake Wobegon fame, all of the children and adults in this part of northeast Wisconsin appear to be above average.

Pagel is isolated from the urban realities found further down the lakeshore — in cities like Milwaukee and Chicago. Yet, some of those city-dwellers are his customers, ultimately. The cheese they eat may be from the milk produced on his farm. And, Pagel wants them to know that he is doing his very best to produce high-quality milk for the cheese-making process.     

Pleasing the consumer is a dynamic process. With each succeeding generation, fewer and fewer people understand what farm life is all about. That’s why we need to be particularly proactive and mindful of the following trends:

  • Supermarkets and fast-food restaurant chains are responding to animal-rights concerns by putting more and more pressure on their suppliers. Keith Carlson, executive director of the Dairy Quality Assurance Center in Stratford, Iowa, fields many of their calls. Probably the greatest area of vulnerability involves dairy-beef, he says. At issue are some of the cull cows that show up at slaughter plants and their overall appearance. Downer cows make a really bad impression on visitors.  
  • Consumers are increasingly aware of foodborne illnesses. Sure, the E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box happened years ago. But, as recently as May 20, we learned that a beef cow sent to slaughter in Canada was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The news media focused on the common name “mad-cow disease,” and immediately the fast-food chains and steak restaurants took a beating on Wall Street.
  • To protect their reputations, retailers want more verification from their suppliers, including farms. “The retail food industry does not want to dictate or run the dairies, but they need a foolproof system to verify the quality (of dairy products),” Carlson says. Part of that verification process may include milk-quality parameters like somatic cell count.

Anytime we can do something to improve milk quality, such as lowering the nation’s somatic cell count standard from 750,000 to 400,000, there should be no debate — we just need to do it. We wish the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments had heeded that advice when it turned down a stricter SCC standard this spring.

Most of us don’t live in Garrison Keiller’s idyllic world of Lake Wobegon. But, that shouldn’t keep us from striving to be better than average.