Person of the Year: The Dairy Farmer

The worst drought in decades brings Dane County’s rich and varied agricultural community into sharp focus. Dairy farmers in particular have been hit hard, but surviving—even thriving—in hard times is all in a day’s work.

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Initially when then-county executive Kathleen Falk’s office approached Ripp about the digester several years ago, he was hesitant. “We didn’t want the county to tell us what to do at first,” he says, but with more than a thousand animals now, Ripp is required to farm with a DNR permit, which means he’s gotten pretty good at implementing input from all sorts of local and state government agencies. He also works “a lot” with the UW Department of Dairy Science and is a member of the Yahara Pride Farms Conservation Board with Jeff Endres, and he says every bit of it has been for the better.

“When you work with them,” as opposed to against them, “everything goes a lot smoother,” he says, shrugging and wiping at his face with a white handkerchief. It’s a hot day, but here inside the shady free-stall barn it’s at least ten degrees cooler with dozens of industrial-sized fans blowing. There’s also a water pipe running directly above the cows that cools them when they need it, just like over at Jeff Endres’s farm.

“When cows are hot, they’re stressed and they go way down on milk,” says Ripp, pointing at several cows lying on beds of sand. “If a cow’s laying there chewin’ her cud? She’s happy, she’s comfortable, she’s making milk. That’s the best thing you want to see.”

There’s a lot Ripp and his brothers do to keep these cows happy. The hoof trimmer and veterinarian each make weekly visits, and the pens are scraped and cleaned three times a day. Daily milkings have risen from two to three times a day—easier on the cows, harder on the farmer. Ripp’s Dairy Valley employs a crew of twelve people, eight of them who split the twenty-four-hour milking day into two twelve-hour shifts.

Farming is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. If something goes wrong on the farm, like a clog in the manure digester line last summer, you fix it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Fourth of July and 102 degrees and everybody else is at the family picnic. You do what you gotta do. On the other hand, farming in partnership means you can make it to your kid’s ball game, a luxury Ripp’s dad couldn’t afford.

“There’s a lot more to dairy farming than there ever used to be,” says Ripp, “but it’s fun, it’s exciting, and we like being our own bosses.”

Between the community digester, the free-stall barns, his cover crops, the way he’s paved his entire operation to contain runoff and the ditches that are carved to do the same thing, Ripp’s Dairy Valley operates like one big teachable moment. That’s what Ripp loves best, getting people out on the farm to show it all off to everyone from the Waunakee kindergarteners who tour every year to the farmers from the United Kingdom, Czech Republic—“Chile, Italy, you name it,” Ripp says—who stop out during the World Dairy Expo in Madison. Ripp’s got a clear passion both for farming and for conservation, and there’s one misconception that burns him more than anything else.

“They tend to call me a factory farm, but I’m as family farm as I can be,” says Ripp, whose operation directly feeds three families, plus those of his employees. “I’m partnered with two other brothers instead of us three struggling, trying to have our own small farm. We brought it all together and made ourselves a real good business together.”

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