Brett Von Ruden unloads a wagon of hay June 10 at his organic farm near Westby, Wisconsin. Von Ruden is the third generation to dairy on the farm. 
PHOTO BY ABBY WIEDMEYER
Brett Von Ruden unloads a wagon of hay June 10 at his organic farm near Westby, Wisconsin. Von Ruden is the third generation to dairy on the farm. PHOTO BY ABBY WIEDMEYER
WESTBY, Wis. – Three generations of men are at work at the Von Rudens’ dairy farm. Darin Von Ruden and his son, Brett, are seven years into a farm transition and receive help from Von Ruden’s father, Dale.
Von Ruden is using his experience of taking over from his parents and the benefits of organic pricing to help his son into ownership.
“Being organic is probably the only reason Brett is here today,” Von Ruden said. “Otherwise, I don’t know if we would have encouraged it.”
The Von Rudens milk 50 organic Holsteins near Westby. Brett takes care of most of the physical labor including milking and feeding, while his dad and grandpa help with fieldwork.
Brett started the transition into the cooperation in 2015. After high school, he went to college in La Crosse and took a job off the farm. He was not sure if he wanted to come back full time until he worked in sales and realized how much he liked farming.
“You’ve got to experience getting off the farm and working for somebody else,” Von Ruden said. “I was the Farmers Union state president until last February, and I saw a lot of different scenarios where a dad keeps the kid under his wing, and then they start fighting and the kid is gone. It’s a sad story because most of the time the kid really wanted to farm.”
Von Ruden has set his son up to buy the cattle and machinery first over a 10-year period. The rest of the farm will come after that. It is a system that has worked so far. In the seven years that it has been in effect, there were only two months where the milk check was short.
“We just extended it another two months on the back end, gave him his money back so he could pay the bills and keep everybody happy,” Von Ruden said. “That was different than in 1992 … when we got void checks. I borrowed money from the bank and luckily had a bunch of heifers coming in.”
Since returning to the farm full time, Brett has gotten married and now has two children. Von Ruden said the grandkids provide an atmosphere he never experienced.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up with a grandpa,” Von Ruden said. “I’m enjoying a lot of time with my grandkids, and my dad gets to enjoy his great-grandkids.”
Von Ruden took over from his parents in 1990. After farming conventionally for the first 17 years, Von Ruden joined the growing organic movement in 2007. The main reason for the change was the opportunity for a better milk price.
“It just made economic sense to do it,” Von Ruden said. “At that time, the price of fertilizer was a quarter of what it is today, but it was getting more and more expensive. It just seemed like the way to go.”
Along with a better milk price, Von Ruden was attracted to the stability of the market. At that time, there were two- and three-year contracts; whereas today, the price is contracted for one year at a time.
“I signed that first contract for three years at $26 (per hundredweight),” Von Ruden said. “I realized it could go over that, but I knew I could make money at $26.”
Von Ruden was happy to see his first organic milk check come in $6,000 higher than his conventional check. He also found fewer health problems with the cows. He was having three or four cows with a displaced abomasum in the herd every year, but now he cannot remember the last time a DA occurred.
“Health wise, on the cows, you don’t have as many options,” Von Ruden said. “But when they’re not stressed and pushed, you don’t have as many problems either.”
Since the farm has never had enough ground to grow corn, Von Ruden adjusted the ration when switching to organic.
“We dropped the soybean diet and started trying to get our hay crop up in higher quality so we got the protein source from there,” Von Ruden said. “We knew we were going to take a hit on production, so not buying corn offset that.”
Von Ruden did have a troublesome year with the drought of 2012. It was the first time he had to buy hay since the 1980s. The organic price improved the next year as a way to offset the cost.
“That’s what’s nice about the organic system is that the consumer can understand that when prices go up, more of it goes directly back to the farmer,” Von Ruden said.
With the experience of transitioning into farming himself and as a former president of a farm organization, Von Ruden plans to continue to make the transition for his son as smooth as possible.
“There are certainly other things that he could have done to make more money or have an easier life,” Von Ruden said. “But, you may as well be doing something you love to do.”