BROWNTOWN, Wis. – “I can’t do this anymore,” Jeff Bidlingmaier said as he came in from another hard day of milking cows.
His hired help had quit after several days working in frigid weather. A polar vortex that affected much of the country in early February had taken its toll on Bidlingmaier, almost 70.
The Browntown-area dairy farmer – who had milked cows since he was 9 years old – decided it was time to sell his herd. He booked an auction for March 24, but then had second thoughts, he said. He had farmed for many years with his mother and worried what she would think. He canceled the auction date.
“I didn’t want her to see an empty barn,” he said.
His wife, Barb Bidlingmaier, said, “(But) in the long run God had a plan.”
His mother, Marilyn Miskimon, passed away just a few days later at the age of 91. He had held on to the herd for her but he could then let go.
Jeff Bidlingmaier is no stranger to hard work. At age 9 he was given the responsibility of milking cows and starting chores before his parents returned home from their work in the auction business. His father, Marvin Bidlingmaier, was an auctioneer. His mother managed two lunch wagons to serve sale-goers.
Jeff Bidlingmaier was just 19 years old when his father passed away in 1970, leaving the young man to manage the farm. His grandparents Albert and Lena Bidlingmaier had bought the 80-acre farm in 1910; 60 acres were located in Wisconsin. The remaining acres as well as the house and farm buildings were in Illinois.
Because the farm was in a low spot and water quality was poor, the older couple moved the house one-half mile to Wisconsin. They did that by putting the house on logs; it was then pulled by a team of horses. Every few yards they would need to stop and replace a log to keep moving forward. They started building a new barn in 1912, completing it in 1913. It was equipped with 28 stanchions for dairy cattle.
Then they built in 1921 a four-bedroom brick house. It’s where Jeff and Barb Bidlingmaier currently live; they purchased the farm from his mother in 1980. Two years later the younger couple extended the barn, adding 23 more stanchions. At that time they were milking 51 cows. To earn more income they bought about a dozen head of beef cattle to fatten for market.
Jeff and Barb Bidlingmaier have seen numerous changes in a lifetime of farming. He said farm machinery has really changed, particularly in size. And large fields have replaced small family-farm-sized fields.
“Seed, fertilizer and lime have become so expensive,” he said. “And the weather is different.”
Despite the challenges of farming he said he enjoyed watching his cattle herd’s progress. He focused on selecting sires that would help produce good milk-producing lines.
At an auction Feb. 24 there were 70 cows and 20 heifers sold from those lines. Tom Bidlingmaier, who followed his parents’ footsteps in the auction business, was the auctioneer. His company – B&M Auctions of Wisconsin – sells cattle, farm equipment, households and more. His brother Jeff Bidlingmaier isn’t alone in dispersing his dairy herd. The auction service has been booked to sell about 1,000 head in the coming months, Tom Bidlingmaier said.
“The cows sold well,” he said of his brother’s herd. “The cattle went to 15 new homes, mainly to small herds.”
During the auction the Bidlingmaier family celebrated their mother’s life by providing free food to auction attendees.
“It’s the end of an era, but it’s also a new chapter,” Tom Bidlingmaier said.
Jeff Bidlingmaier still has his beef cattle to feed. And he farms 121 acres and has been renting another 300 acres.
“He just doesn’t have the obligation of milking twice a day anymore,” Barb Bidlingmaier said. “He can farm at his own pace.”
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.