Number of feed mills in Wisconsin keeps grinding down

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Monday, February 16, 2009
— Brian Hammil has a dinosaur in the back room.

Its sides are steel gray and covered in fine, white dust.

It groans and roars although not as often as it did 20 years ago.

Hammil's "dinosaur," as he jokingly called it during a tour at Hammil Farm Center, 1115 E. High St., Milton, is a mill used to crack and grind grain into livestock feed.

While small grind-and-mix mills aren't quite extinct, they're certainly a waning industry, said John Petty, executive director for the Wisconsin Agri-Service Association.

The state has about 350 licensed feed dealers, down from 900 just 20 years ago, Petty said.

And not all 350 are grind-and-mix mills like Hammil's, Petty said. Some are storefronts or on-farm businesses.

The decrease in the numbers and sizes of feed mills reflects the changing nature of the livestock industry, Petty said.

He calls it the "bow tie" effect.

"You're having growth at both ends of the size spectrum," Petty said. "You're getting these large, multiple-thousand-head herds and small, niche producers."

Petty doesn't count hobby farmers in the mix.

The 3,000 Wisconsin farms that go out of business each year are the ones in the middle of the spectrum, Petty said. They don't want to get bigger to stay in business, nor do they want to change their business plans to get into the specialty market, Petty said.

Feed mills have followed the same trend, he said.

From the feed delivery truck, John Lader has seen mills in Afton, Richmond and Footville shut down.

"There just aren't very many left," Lader said.

Lader owns Lader's Tiffany Feed & Supply, 5821 E. Townline Road, Beloit. His dad built the mill in the unincorporated community of Tiffany in the late 1950s, Lader said.

Lader also supplies livestock feed, including beef and dairy. He also sells birdseed and corn for yard feeders, water softener salt and pet food.

His emphasis is on mixing and delivering livestock feed in a 30-mile radius of his mill.

He's held on to a lot of dairy business, but Rock County's production swine market is almost non-existent, Lader said.

Twenty to 30 years ago, a typical farmer raised 40 cows, 20 pigs and 100 chickens, Lader said.

Today farmers are specialized and raise one species, Lader said.

And it's not like new faces are jumping to get into the livestock production or feed industries, Lader said.

"It's an industry that as a whole doesn't have a lot of growth," Lader said. "You just don't see a lot of new people getting into the business."

One type of sale that's increased at both mills in the last 10 years is show feeds for pigs and beef cattle. Hammil doesn't do much dairy business, but he does mix feed for calves, lambs, pigs and horses. Both mills have seen an increase of show feed sales in the last 10 years.

Of course, Hammil is happy to get hobby farmers' business.

"They come in with a grocery list. They have to get feed for the donkey, the two pigs, the steer and some biscuits for the dog," Hammil said.

Hammil hopes that pet owners and hobby farmers will keep family-owned businesses in mind when they shop because the "big guys" won't be.

"The market is shrinking all the time," Hammil said. "The big customers with the big money probably aren't going to come in here.

"We're fortunate that we've been able to continue," Hammil said.

Last updated: 9:38 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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