By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine Nov. 11, 2022
MADISON, Wis. — “The cows bring us together, but it’s always the people that make it impactful. This industry is great because we do it together,” said Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, based in Juneau as she accepted the 2022 World Dairy Expo Industry Person of the Year award at the Dinner with the Stars, October 5.
“Friendships and trust, so needed in today’s world, come in heaping portions here at World Dairy Expo. I’m just one piece of a much larger team,” said Mark Comfort, co-founder of Udder Comfort, Cardinal, Ontario, Canada, as he was awarded 2022 International Person of the Year.
Grateful for “the privilege of being able to represent dairy farmers in Wisconsin, the U.S. and around the world,” 2022 Dairy Producer of the Year, John Ruedinger of Ruedinger Dairy, Van Dyne, talked about the importance of the industry working together to move dairy forward.
The awards dinner was attended by over 200 people during the 55th World Dairy Expo last month in Madison. The annual event recognizes dairy trailblazers, mentors and those making longstanding impacts.
In industry service, Mayer has been with PDPW since its start in 2001. The organization has grown to become the nation’s largest professional dairy group with 1700 members from 32 states and an impact on the industry primarily through education.
Citing this leadership and development among the founding principles that Mayer puts to work on her own family’s dairy farm, award presenters highlighted the mark she has left on the Wisconsin dairy industry and beyond through her “unmatched passion and servant leadership.”
Her passion for dairy began growing up on a farm in southwest Wisconsin and continued through Mayer’s education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received her degrees in ag journalism and dairy science and was recognized by National Dairy Shrine as an outstanding student.
Mayer was credited with the PDPW’s early work on animal well-being standards that later were incorporated in the FARM program as well as the ‘meat matters’ program on residue avoidance that later became an antimicrobial stewardship education for the dairy and livestock industries through the Food Armor Foundation.
Award presenters also noted Mayer’s influential part in the Dairy Innovation Hub, representing a $7.8 million investment by the state of Wisconsin in cutting edge research for the future of dairy. The ‘hub’ concept was born from a drawing she made in the office of Mystic Dairy when Mitch Breunig was PDPW’s president several years ago.
Breunig called Mayer’s work “truly inspirational,” helping dairy farmers learn to more professionally run their farms. “As we have fewer farms and fewer farmers, it’s going to take leadership from all of us,” he said.
Pointing out many of PDPW’s founders and her family in attendance, Mayer credited and thanked them, and especially the team of staff she works with for the organization’s far-reaching impact. In 2021 and 2022, alone, PDPW will have provided more than 220 days of education and outreach.
“Education is a powerful force that can change the world. It brings out the best in people and grows leaders who can ask the tough questions,” she said.
Mayer touched on the regenerative and sustainable agriculture story, telling attendees that, “this is the time to stand together, not at the sidelines, to tell that story. We’re so busy feeding the world, that we haven’t taken the time to share… to get out there and tell it.”
As Dairy Producer of the Year, Ruedinger was highlighted for his domestic and global contributions as a member of the board and former chairman of Genex, leading to the creation of Cooperative Resources International, the industry’s first combination of a dairy cattle breeding company and a dairy records provider and later URUS Group, the combination of both cooperative and private entities.
Ruedinger is a sought-after speaker at home and abroad on cooperative principles and industry leadership and was a founding board member of PDPW. Today he serves as vice chairman of URUS Group and on local boards for agribusiness leadership and Holstein breeders. He thanked the past and present members of the URUS Council who were present.
“The farmer spirit was never lost in the formation of URUS,” said Ruedinger, honored to have been part of the success, part of the process and part of the collaboration and humbled to receive the World Dairy Expo honor as a dairy producer who learned from his father the pride in his family, his dairy farm and his involvement in the cooperative system.
Also highlighted were Ruedinger’s accomplishments as the third generation at Ruedinger Dairy, which has transitioned to the fourth generation with 1500 cows milking over 90 pounds per day with somatic cell counts averaging 87,000.
A devastating fire in 1996 was a pivotal time, but the decision to move forward was made, and they’ve never looked back, with consistent growth every year since.
As International Person of the Year, Comfort’s four decades of impact in dairy genetics, market access, products and practices were recognized. Presenters highlighted his achievement of a dairy genetics-based crossborder relationship between Canada and the U.S., developing his former company Transfer Genetics in the 1980s, which later became part of Select Sires in 2000, as well as currently on the management side as co-founder of Udder Comfort and his continued work in genetics through Comfort Holsteins and Comfort Tunis sheep.
Award presenters traced Comfort’s early days showing dairy cattle and sheep with his grandfather by the time he was four, milking cows and raising livestock with his family, developing a keen interest in genetics and pursuing entrepreneurial ideas while studying at University of Guelph, where he revived the dairy cattle judging team and served as college Royal Show chairman.
Comfort’s brother Neil and wife Margaret operate Brookturn Holsteins at the Niagara County farm that has been in the family since 1797.
Notably, Comfort was instrumental in changing Canadian law as he took on the AI regulations of the 1980s — and won. His early work also created the first process for Canadian dairy farmers to learn how to do their own AI, which helped open access to then emerging U.S. sires like Chief Mark, Blackstar, and Elevation.
Combined with the elite genetics of Canadian Holstein cow families and their owner-breeders ‘armed’ with the power to breed their own cows, proved to be a nexus for what legends are made of, including top sires and legacies of the World Dairy Expo, such as Braedale Goldwyn, and the millionaire sires of Comestar — and further impacts from the showring to the commercial cow management side today.
Award presenters thanked Comfort for Udder Comfort’s generosity, giving away pallets of product for exhibitors throughout the cattle barns, a tradition that began in 2007 and was followed in 2008 by sponsorship of the grand champion cash awards for all seven breed shows, followed by initiating in 2009 the cash awards for all seven breed grand champions in the junior show as well.
Comfort was quick to credit the people around him through the years, including his longtime friend and mentor the late George Miller of Select Sires. “Without incredible friends, people who believed in me and shared these goals, this would not be possible. I am humbled,” he said, introducing his family, friends, colleagues and the Udder Comfort team in attendance and thanking those who nominated him.
Citing World Dairy Expo as “truly the place where the global dairy industry meets, it all began here for us,” Comfort said with appreciation for the hundreds of dairy farmers who have shared their stories over the years.
“Your stories move us,” he said. “Your competitiveness and cooperation together inspire us, your friendships encourage us, and your feedback and suggestions help us raise the bar to improve how we deliver tools of progress and cow comfort.”