The last weekend in February, 27 members of Collegiate Farm Bureau at UW-Madison along with two mentors, Andrea Brossard and Mason Rens, traveled across Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska and back. The objective of the trip was to tour and learn more about many different agricultural businesses throughout the Midwest. The trip turned out to be a great success and lots of fun.
We departed early Thursday morning, by bus, for our first stop in Dyersville, Iowa, at Big River United Energy, LLC ethanol plant. We were immediately greeted by plant manager, Terry Manchester, grain merchandiser, Gary Wessels, and production manager, Ed Roling. They gave us an overview of their plant and the ethanol industry. We then split into groups and each of them took us out on a tour of the plant. We saw the grain pits where they took corn in and how it traveled to the grinder. When they aren’t incurring any problems, they grind approximately 5,000 bushels of corn every hour, keeping in mind they work 24/7 and through weekends and holidays. We followed the milled corn as it became mash, was cooked, and fermented. Then, after the liquid was distilled and separated, we saw how the remaining corn remnants were dried and either sold as dry or modified distillers’ grain. Finally, we learned how ethanol goes through a molecular sieve to become pure ethanol, but then must be denatured by adding 1.5% gasoline to keep away bootleggers with sticky fingers. It is then stored in large tanks before being shipped away on train tanks, most of which head to refineries in New York.
Our next stop was in Marshalltown, Iowa, at the JBS pork processing plant facility and distribution center. Once we arrived, we learned a little bit about the history of the facility and company and then had to undergo an extensive safety training before going out on to the floor for the tour. The plant spends $1 billion to bring enough hogs in for the year, as it processes 21,700 pigs each day. On the tour, we were able to see everything in the process. We watched as the pigs came in, were given a gas to knock them out, and then stuck. It was interesting to hear that consumers will attack JBS claiming that the hogs squeal before they are killed and are mistreated throughout the process, however, during our experience the hogs were very quiet before being killed, and most of the noise that was heard was simply the hogs interacting before entering the processing stages.
We walked through stages of processing and all the employees as they trimmed the different cuts of meat. We also saw their brand new addition that featured marinades as part of value-added food for customers and an 8-story robot that moved pallets of meat in and out of a giant refrigerator before being distributed by truck and train. Many members were especially excited about this tour afterwards since we received a behind the scenes experience of all that goes on to get the bacon from farm to table. For me, this tour brought new respect and understanding to meat processing and gave me even more confidence in our food system.
We spent the night in Stuart, Iowa, before departing for Omaha, Nebraska, for our Friday tours. The first stop was at CLAAS of America headquarters, where they assemble their Lexion combines. John Costello, a marketing specialist, explained how CLAAS is still a family-owned company and headquartered in Harsewinkel, Germany. They are the fourth-leading agricultural equipment manufacturer in the world, and are trying to expand their dealer network here in America. As I mentioned before, they actually only assemble pieces of the Lexion combine in Omaha. Larger pieces such as their twin rotors, separator, bin, engine, feeder housing and cab are placed on the frame as it moves down the line. The assembly line was not powered like most others you would see. The frames were moved down the line by 50,000 pound air pallet jacks that are moved by hand by employees. Before the combine receives wheels or tracks and all the shields and panels, all mechanical parts are tested in a sound proof test booth. They have the capacity to produce up to eight combines each day if orders demand the production.
In the afternoon, we visited Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. Upon arrival, we got a behind the scenes talk with Jonathan Aaltonen, reproductive sciences lab supervisor, on the work they do in the reproduction lab at the zoo and some of the unique scenarios and challenges that they face. Afterwards, members had time to explore the zoo. Animals that we visited included: tigers, lions, giraffes, very obnoxious monkeys, bears, a polar bear, birds, snakes, fish, penguins and many more. Following the zoo, we had an opportunity to socialize over dinner with some students from University of Nebraska-Lincoln that were also members of their chapter of Collegiate Farm Bureau. We were also joined by two recent graduates of UW-Madison, who both were past presidents of Collegiate Farm Bureau at UW-Madison, Taylor Fritsch, graduated in 2014 who is attending law school in Lincoln, and Taylor Holtermann, who graduated in 2015 and is a marketing specialist at Union Pacific Railroad headquarters in Omaha.
Saturday morning we departed Omaha and headed for downtown Des Moines. Upon arriving in Des Moines, we visited the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates which is a museum that honors Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for crossing and breeding semi-dwarf wheat which allowed millions to be fed. Inside, we saw plaques of all the Laureates or winners of the World Food Prize, an honor started by Norman Borlaug that is now known as the Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture. The hall has two rooms honoring Dr. Borlaug and John Ruan, Sr., who donated the old Des Moines library to become the World Food Prize. Upstairs features a giant photo collection of Howard Buffet and his travels around the world identifying challenges different people are facing. Also upstairs is the Iowa Room, which commemorates numerous Iowans who have be influential in agriculture, including Henry A.Wallace, George Washington Carver, Herbert Hoover and Jessie Shambaugh in addition to Norman Borlaug. That afternoon, members explored downtown Des Moines for a couple hours and enjoy the beautiful weather that day (in the 60’s).
After spending the final night in Iowa City, our last day was spent at Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa. Upon arriving, owner John Maxwell welcomed our group into his home to give us a presentation of his operation. John and his wife, Joan, run approximately 4,000 acres, a 240-cow jersey dairy with their daughter, a small cheese factory run by John’s brother, a beef herd, a self-serve country store featuring their own products, and lease two hog raising barns. John has become very busy giving tours for anyone who may interested in seeing his farm and many for John Deere customers from the nearby Quad Cities. A lot of foreigners come to see John’s farm via John Deere, and it has become quite popular. When we entered the barn, it featured a private area with windows allowing visitors a view of each of their four robotic milking machines. Everyone enjoyed watching how the machines worked, as the cow entered, was milked, and then the machine performed its own rinse cycle. Above that viewing area, there was an upstairs with windows that allowed visitors to look out over both sides of the sand-bedded freestall barn. Next to the freestall barn, was a new heifer barn that held all of their 200 youngstock. Finally, we visited their small country store which was approximately 10’ x 20’and sold their own beef, cheese and bakery on a self-service honor system. We got a lot of great perspectives from John, as he proved himself as a very successful agricultural businessman in several markets.
Overall, we had a great trip and spent time with some great people. It honestly could not have gone any better, and we learned all kinds of new things about many agricultural businesses throughout the Midwest. We made lots of memories with each other and had a trip that I will never forget.
Brad is a Senior at UW-Madison studying Agricultural and Applied Economics with a double major in Agronomy. He grew up in Newton, where his family runs a dairy heifer replacement farm with more than 300 acres for feed and grain. In addition to being Collegiate Farm Bureau President, he is also involved in the Commodities Trading Team, Badger Dairy Club, Renk Scholars, Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and Agricultural Business Management Club on campus. After graduation, Brad will work for Country Visions Cooperative as a Grain Merchandiser.
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