MADISON, Wis. – Dairy farmers recently studied whether they could earn more from their farms’ milk during the “Making More from Milk” course held April 17-19. The program began in Madison, followed by tours to various value-added dairy businesses. Participants also visited the International Cheese Technology Exposition in Milwaukee.

“We went with nothing specific in mind,” said Emily McClellan, who attended the course with her sister Erin McClellan. “We were just eager to learn and be part of the discussions.”

Emily McClellan is living at her family’s farm near Delavan, Wisconsin. While she doesn’t work full-time at the farm, she does help with calf care and driving tractor, she said. Erin McClellan works at Case IH in Racine, Wisconsin. Their father, Tom McClellan, runs the 450-cow dairy operation. Their mother, June McClellan, does the operation’s bookkeeping. Business partner, Wes Hopkins, manages the cropping business that encompasses 3,000 acres.

The McClellan family doesn’t currently have any plans to start a value-added dairy business, but they have been discussing the possibility.

“We’ve discussed agri-tourism, but there’s nothing definite,” Emily McClellan said. “My dad says, ‘Our plans are so secret that we don’t even know what they are.’”

Lindsey Prahl farms with her husband, Ryan Prahl, near Wausau, Wisconsin. The couple owns a 140-cow dairy farm with Ryan’s parents, Bob and Mary Jo Prahl.

“We want to enhance the size of dairy on our terms rather than having the market tell us what size we need to be,” Lindsey Prahl said. “But we have a lot of research to do before we decide the right time and direction.”

Determining what makes one’s operation special and what will stand the test of time will help farmers navigate tough economic waters, Prahl said.

“But not every operation is cut out to add value,” she said. “The Making More from Milk program helped me zero in on what our farm’s strengths and weaknesses are. That’s powerful to know.”

The program featured sessions on marketing and branding. Participants also networked with farmers and other business owners. Emily McClellan said she appreciated the perspectives of farmers who started value-added businesses.

“They didn’t sugar-coat anything, especially when talking about all the changes in the market,” she said.

The program also allowed participants to see options.

“Some people were thinking about bottling fluid milk and others are thinking about making and selling ice cream,” McClellan said. “It was fun to discuss the pros and cons with others because someone would bring something new to the table.”

Making More from Milk was created by Karen Nielsen of Global Dairy Outreach and Jill Stahl Tyler of Global Cow. They developed the course to help dairy farmers consider options for their businesses. With low milk prices, bringing more family members into a dairy-farming business is difficult. A value-added business could be one way for a family to bring on family members, Nielsen said.

But she and Stahl Tyler acknowledge that such a decision isn’t easy. And as Lindsey Prahl said, starting a value-added business isn’t for everyone.

Despite those issues, the course encouraged participants to explore possibilities. Questions from the participants were on-target, Stahl Tyler said. They asked about managing time, labor and finances.

“They were exactly the type of participants we wanted – all looking to make their farming operations more profitable.”

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.