OCONTO, Wis. – With depressed milk prices in the past few years dairy farmers have been challenged in maintaining a positive attitude. Inclement weather in 2019 only contributed to the gloom.

Despite that Phil and Laura Finger have projected a positive attitude.

“That’s one of the reasons I nominated them for Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer award,” said Scott Reuss, agriculture and horticulture agent for the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension.

The Fingers were chosen as program finalists – and then as the 2020 Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer at the annual program held Jan. 24-26 in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

“It blew our minds.” Laura Finger said.

At the Finger Family Farm the couple milk 540 cows, raise 450 head of young stock and farm 1,400 acres near Oconto. Phil Finger’s parents, Jack and Nancy Finger, are partners in the business. But health issues about a decade ago prompted Jack Finger to retire from the farm’s daily management. Currently Phil and Laura Finger manage the dairy and cropping operations.

“We’re a team,” Phil Finger said of himself and his wife.

The farm’s 18 employees also are part of the team. Employees have worked at the farm an average of five years; one employee has worked there 13 years. The Fingers also hire high school students to work part-time, partly to keep young people engaged in the dairy industry.

“We’re proud of our employee retention,” Laura Finger said. “And it’s nice when some of the kids who have graduated from high school visit and want to hang out with us.”

While it’s sometimes challenging to maintain a positive attitude, a negative one affects everyone, she said. That’s why she and her family work to stay positive and motivated. And they set goals, she said.

“Every week we discuss the good, bad and the ugly,” Phil Finger said about the herd-management program.

The young couple shares that positive attitude with their four children as well as employees and fellow farmers, Reuss said. They have hosted educational workshops at their farm as well as Marinette County Holstein Association twilight meetings.

“They do a lot to help other farmers through the Holstein association,” Reuss said. “And they host school groups; they’re always looking for opportunities to share what being on a farm is like.”

He said he’s been most impressed by the couple’s perseverance at a difficult time in the dairy industry.

“They've stayed with it, committed themselves to their herd and made the farm a better place for their animals,” he said.

Jeff Fischer is a representative for Genex; he works with the Fingers on their dairy-cattle reproduction program.

“I’m proud of them,” he said. “They represent the future of our industry.”

He’s known Phil Finger since Finger was a youngster.

“I was a milk tester at the time,” Fischer said. “When I visited his dad’s farm, young Phil would grab my invoice books and look inside. He also had a postcard from Hoard’s Dairyman showing the different dairy breeds and he would recite them to me.”

Fischer as well as Randy Englebert, also of Genex, would play a big role later in Finger’s life. They were responsible for introducing him to Laura.

“We thought they’d make a good pair,” Fischer said. “They are both forward-thinking and have similar attitudes and goals. And both have dairy-science degrees.”

She had lost her first husband to cancer; she’d been managing a 300-cow milking herd at his parents’ farm in Michigan. Fischer and Englebert provided genetic-consulting services on that farm as well as the Finger farm. With a little coaxing they encouraged Finger to call her. The matchmakers were successful.

The Fingers expanded in 2008 from a 300-cow to a 500-cow herd. They built a four-row addition to a freestall barn to accommodate the additional 200 cows. They continue to use a double-12 parallel parlor built in 2000.

The couple has achieved a rolling-herd average of 30,756 pounds, with 1,280 pounds of butterfat and 994 pounds of protein. Their goal is to produce 7.5 pounds of components per cow per day. The herd already produces 7 pounds. Due to wet weather in 2019 and its effect on the farm’s crops, production goals may be more difficult to reach in 2020, Phil Finger said.

Their herd currently has a 30 percent pregnancy rate. But Finger said he’d like to reach 32 percent. The couple raises the heifers and does some embryo flushing.

“We can’t have too many cows so we breed them to beef animals,” he said.

Laura Finger said, “We want to set ourselves up for the best profitability.”

Visit www.facebook.com/fingerfamilyfarm for more information.

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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.