Twenty-six-year-old Frank Behling of Randolph says he was in shock after receiving a letter on April 3 from Grassland Dairy Products telling him that as of May 1, he would have to find a new market for his milk.
“I had a pretty good idea the market was tight, so I was worried,” Behling says. “It was disheartening. The same day we got the letter, my milk plant rep was fired. I talked to a milk plant rep from out of state who told me they were buying milk from Michigan for $5 per hundredweight under pay price.”
A 2013 graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in dairy science, Behling owns Wildweed Holsteins and Jerseys and milks 60 registered cows on a farm he rents just east of Randolph in western Dodge County. His girlfriend, Mara Budde, also a UW-Madison grad, works at Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus, where she manages the store and handles marketing. She helps Behling after work and on weekends.
Patience and perseverance
“I called four plants after I got the letter before I decided to let things shake out,” Behling says. “It took a while for people to figure out what was going on. I knew anybody I talked to wasn’t going to give me an answer because they had to check with their board of directors.”
Behling is one of about 70 dairy farmers in Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota who was let go May 1 by Grassland Dairy, located in Greenwood in Clark County. The company buys milk from about 600 farms and primarily makes butter. For years Grassland sold 1 million pounds of ultrafiltered milk daily to Canada, where it was made into cheese. But at the end of March, Grassland was informed that Canada was immediately discontinuing that milk purchase. Behind this action is a new pricing structure implemented by the Canadian government that dramatically increases the cost of U.S. dairy imports and encourages companies there to purchase milk from Canadian dairy producers.
Too much milk
“I don't blame Canada,” Behling says. “There’s just too much milk in this country.”
He says all of the Wisconsin producers who were dumped by Grassland had the same milk hauler, Randy Hupf of Waupun.
“Randy had 22 drivers, and he had to lay off 15 of them,” Behling says. “The 10 Minnesota farms and Randy’s farms were the furthest away from the plant. They got rid of us because it cost more to pick up our milk.”
Behling was happy to hear on April 17 that eight farms in Columbia County were being picked up by Mullins Cheese in Mosinee, but at the same time, he was frustrated that he wasn't one of them.
“We’re just 3 or 4 miles from the Columbia County line,” he says.
A handful of farms were picked up by a couple of other milk plants. A week after sending out the letter, Grassland agreed to continue buying milk from several farmers who received letters but had their milk forward-contracted with Grassland through January, including a 3,000-cow dairy near Fox Lake. After their contracts expire, those farmers will also need to find new homes for their milk.
Time running out
With the clock ticking, Behling says he heard on April 21 that Dairy Farmers of America was interested in picking up milk from some of the displaced Grassland producers.
“I didn’t hear anything that weekend, so on Monday, April 24, I called the DFA field rep,” Behling says. “He said they were looking for two loads, but he wasn’t sure how it was going to sort out.”
Two days later, the DFA field rep visited with Behling at his farm. “I verbally committed on Wednesday, April 26, and signed the contract the next day, and they started picking up my milk on Monday, May 1.”
Behling says the contract is for six months. “We’re free to find someone else, but we can stay with them,” he says. “They are paying us the Class III price for our milk plus premiums for our butterfat and protein, minus 35 cents per hundredweight for hauling.”
Behling says he has no plans to switch from DFA. “I’m grateful to DFA because they are the ones who stepped up and helped people,” he says. “They picked up everyone who was left except two farms. They move about a quarter of the nation’s milk, so they have the most power to do something.”
Behling says he has a new outlook on life after surviving this experience. “I’m relieved for now,” he says. “If the president goes and blows up NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], I won’t be happy. But I can’t worry about it; otherwise it gets depressing.”
The young dairyman is grateful to Wisconsin Ag Secretary Ben Brancel and his staff for meeting with the displaced Grassland producers and helping find new homes for their milk. He is also grateful for the help and support he gets from his older sister Linda and his parents, Jim and Diane, who farm a few miles east of his farm, near Fox Lake. They house 30 of his heifers.
Behling says bottom line, he’s grateful he is still able to do what he enjoys doing most. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to sell my cows.”
Check out the gallery to learn more about Behling’s farm.