Nicole Pipkorn Dickmann is passionate about cows—a good thing because she keeps tabs on 1,700 of them on a Port Washington farm as one of the few women trained as a dairy herd manager.
Tracking their health and milk production is key to modern dairy farming
When Nicole Pipkorn Dickmann saw artist Craig Blietz’s large paintings of cows on exhibit at Gallery 224 in Port Washington, she felt at home, surrounded by the animals she calls “the ladies.”
“I love those paintings. When you see them on canvas, you definitely appreciate how beautiful an animal they are,” Dickmann said. “You might take that for granted when you work with them every day. They’re beautiful, statuesque animals, and certainly art worthy.”
Her favorite painting is of a large Holstein cow standing erect, head up, looking directly at the viewer.
“She knows she looks good,” Dickmann said. “She has an udder full of milk and she’s happy. They really stand like that.”
The paintings gave Dickmann a new perspective and appreciation for people who view cows in a more romantic, pastoral way than she does as the assistant herd manager for the 1,700-head dairy herd at Melichar Broad Farms in the Town of Port Washington.
It is not unusual for women to be involved in dairy farming — often shoving large animals that could easily overpower them — but Dickmann, 26, may be the only trained female herd manager in Ozaukee County and one of a handful in the state, her boss Jim Melichar said.
It’s a career Dickmann never envisioned while growing up in Cedarburg, although she always loved working on her aunt and uncle’s dairy farm and showed their cows as 4-H projects at the Ozaukee County Fair.
“If you had told me my career would be working with cows, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Dickmann said.
She planned to be an architect when she enrolled in the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, but found herself drawn to farming.
When she had research papers due, Dickmann said, she usually chose an agriculture issue, writing about such things as disappearing barns and farmland for one class and why the next generation isn’t going into farming for a sociology class.
“With those subjects, I would get so excited and wrapped up in it and thought, ‘People need to know about this,’” Dickmann said. “I realized this is what I’m passionate about.”
She changed her major to dairy science during her sophomore year, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating with a degree in dairy science in December 2011.
In the summer of 2008, Dickmann completed an internship in artificial insemination on the Melichar farm. She did another internship on the farm in 2009 that covered all aspects of dairy farming for her degree.
She worked for Melichar for 18 months after graduating, but had second thoughts and worked in retail sales for nine months. She also toyed with the idea of majoring in art, another reason why she appreciates Blietz’s work.
“I thought and thought about what I wanted to be doing,” Dickmann said. “I wanted to do dairy promotion, but I know in this area there aren’t many dairy jobs that are strictly promotion. There are plenty of jobs in Madison, but my husband and I farm ourselves and we couldn’t move the farm.”
She and her husband Matt, who met at a Future Farmers Spring Fling, raise beef steers and grow cash crops on their Town of Saukville farm.
Not working on the Melichar farm for nine months, Dickmann said, convinced her to return to the dairy farm.
The cows won.
“It’s a lifestyle and I missed it,” Dickmann said.
She works six days a week, usually starting at 7 a.m. and working until the tasks are done, sometimes able to leave after a few hours and other times not until 12 hours later.
Dickmann, who works with Jim’s son Adam, is primarily responsible for the health of the 770 registered milking cows and maintains computer records for the entire herd, including calves and heifers.
Her favorite job is giving farm tours, especially to schoolchildren, but also to adults to explain the dairy industry. She would like to go into classrooms to promote the industry she loves.
“Our cows are not pets, they are our production partners,” she tells everyone who will listen. “What I want people to know is that everything we do is for the well-being of the cow. A happy cow gives more milk.”
Cows on the Melichar farm are milked three times a day. The average herd production is 90 pounds per cow per day and top producers give more than 100 pounds of milk a day.
Under the direction of the farm’s veterinarian, Dickmann treats cows that are pregnant, ready to be bred, have given birth or have mastitis or other conditions that require antibiotics or other treatments.
She makes sure cows receiving antibiotics are marked on the leg with bright red tape and kept in a separate pen from milking cows. If any antibiotic gets into the bulk milk tank, all the milk must be dumped.
“It hasn’t happened to us, but I’ve seen the milk truck dump milk into the lagoon and it’s a sad thing,” Dickmann said.
Dickmann no longer does artificial insemination because the farm now works with Alta Genetics for breeding.
She and Adam Melichar attended Alta’s dairy herd school, where she met herd managers from Russia, Germany, Denmark and Venezuela as well as throughout the United States. She was the only woman in the class.
The school reinforced that she made the right choice, Dickmann said.
“You have to find out what you’re passionate about and what will make you happy,” she said. “And it’s important to do work that you’re proud of.
“This is work I’m so proud of.”