Working to improve the county 100 years ago

Working with farmers and community members is as challenging, humbling and satisfying now, 100 years later, as it was then.

The beginnings of Michigan State University Extension in Ogemaw County were modest but bold. After the first agricultural agent came in 1917, an office was opened in the county in 1919 with William Edward McCarthy serving as the County Agricultural Agent. He didn’t have a laptop computer, 4-wheel drive pickup truck or cell phone, but he got to work right away.

In a report by McCarthy, believed to be from 1923, he wrote of his work with dairy farmers, “The greatest results of the year were obtained along the lines of livestock industry, especially dairying.”

Eradicating bovine TB was a big issue then, as now, in more northern counties. In the first test for TB, 3.5 percent of the cattle in the county were shown to be tubercular. After infected cattle were removed, herds that had been infected were retested.

He wrote, “Many questioned the advisability of the general tests, but when it was found that many of the reacting animals were at one time connected with certain herds and that it many cases it evidently spread from certain animals, it was clearly seen that the general test was the means of checking the spread of the disease.”

Improving the genetic base of cattle was also a goal of McCarthy’s. Twenty purebred sires were purchased during the year for dairy farmers to use, as well as 14 purebred heifers. These heifers were placed with 12 “good responsible men” who used them as foundation stock to build purebred herds. Several of the bulls were purchased with the help of the Chamber of Commerce.

A cow testing association was reorganized. Through that, farmers took a greater interest in better cows and better dairy practices. McCarthy wrote that “One hundred and ninety two farmers are feeding better balanced rations . . .” Just shy of his goal, of 300 farmers who would improve feeding.

Part of improving nutrition was a goal to increase alfalfa acreage in the county. He wrote, “Among the aims we set out to achieve along the farm crops line was to double the acreage of alfalfa. In this we more than achieved the aim. There were about 1,000 acres of alfalfa at the beginning of the year and this acreage has trebled (tripled).”

He helped in all aspects of the promotion of the crop. “Results of the hay crop of alfalfa as compared with other legumes was published together with several articles on alfalfa growing. Publicity on the results of feeding alfalfa by local men was also given. (Seed) Inoculation was kept on hand and over two hundred bottles were distributed through the office.”

His outlook for the coming year was very positive. “This coming year will probably be one of the big years in the development of agriculture in Ogemaw County.”

Besides a goal of doubling the alfalfa acreage again, promoting improvement in cattle and better nutrition, thought was given to what to do with the amount of the product produced. “Investigation will be made as to the advisability of promoting a butter factory and a canning plant both for which there seems to be a growing demand and would apparently fit well in the locality.”

Much has changed since those days, and yet, maybe little has changed. There are no longer more than 300 dairy farmers in Ogemaw County – dotting the landscape up and down every road, though some of the same families still milk cows today.  Currently, there are more than 6,000 dairy cows on 39 farms in the county.

Bovine TB was a major cattle and human health issue. Consuming unpasteurized milk from infected cows caused many human cases of TB. Yet, testing and removing positive animals helped reduce the reactor rate of cows in 1930 by almost two-thirds. Still it took until 1979 for Michigan to be recognized as TB-free after an eradication program of 62 years.

It’s great to look back at the way things were 100 years ago, and to think about similarities and differences from then to now. Today, the Dairy Extension Educator works not just with dairy and beef farmers in Ogemaw County, but across the state. Disease prevention is still a major issue. Nutrition is handled primarily from feed companies, and cooperatives lead in providing genetics for better breeding. Helping farmers develop their management skills is now more important as these businesses have grown.

What I miss is the fun stuff such as when McCarthy “held six dynamite ditching demonstrations” and obtained “one (rail?) car-load of explosives for use in removing tramp stumps.” Now that would have been a blast!

Working with farmers and community members is as challenging, humbling and satisfying now, 100 years later, as it was then.

This article was based on original reports by William McCarthy, Ogemaw County Agricultural Agent, provided by the Ogemaw County Historical Society.

Related articles in this series:

The beginning of MSU Extension in Ogemaw County 100 years ago

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