For decades the theory that farmers are getting old and there are no young people taking over has been a popular subject of discussion presented by so-called ag experts.

However, the line of young people waiting to take over the home farm or set out on their own career in farming or agribusiness is long and enthusiastic.

The recent 15th Badger Invitational Holstein heifer sale hosted by the UW-Madison Badger Dairy Club is a showcase of good dairy cattle and the 75 or so students who put the event together.

Professor Randy Shaver, a UW-Madison dairy nutritionist who serves as an adviser to the club, says “the students did it all from finding the cattle to conducting the sale. I just stood back and marveled at their ambition and ability.”

The Badger Invitational Holstein sale got its start with the decision by dairy science student members of the BDC to sponsor a money-making and experience-gaining event that would involve students, alumni and the dairy industry.

The first sale was held at the Arlington Research Station in 1983 when 51 lots averaged just over $2,700. The high-selling animal brought $10,500 and found a new home in New York.

In 1997, the event moved to the historic Stock Pavilion on campus, where it has remained.

This year’s sale of 57 animals averaged a bit over $2,900 -- with the top animal (a choice of one of nine calves unborn at sale time) bringing $10,900 from a California buyer.

Conducting such a sale is big business indeed, and the students under the direction of Chairman Brian Coyne of Spring Valley and his six major committees pulled it off with ease. And you can bet that the names of most of those involved will remain prominent among the leaders in Wisconsin dairying for years to come.

The buyers of the heifers at this every-other-year event range from the big (Hilmar Dairy in California this year) to the elite (Tom Lyons Jr. of Westfield in 1997) to the next-to-be-great (high school senior Justin Langer of DeForest in 2009).

Justin Langer, the son of Randy and Sue Langer, was a high school senior and FFA president at DeForest High when he paid $7,200 of his own money for the sale topper at the event in 2009. At the time, Justin said his purchase was a major step in increasing the registered Holstein impact of the Langer family dairy, which included some 250 milking Holsteins, 80 of which were registered.

A visit to the Langer farm a few days ago found Justin at work in the dairy barn and still excited about his future in dairying. After graduation from DeForest High, he attended the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course and is a full-time employee at the home farm, currently centering on milking and herd health.

“I did buy the top seller at the sale in 2009,” Justin says. “She seemed like a animal to start my own herd, and she was. She milked 22,000 pounds her first lactation, has six calves from embryos being born in June and is pregnant with twin heifers to be born in July. I guess you could say my one calf has become nine in two years.”

Justin pointed out that he had also purchased another heifer at that 2009 sale for $2,500. “She is pregnant with twin heifers also,” he says. “So I’ll be up to 12 head altogether.”

Justin points out that his older brother Darren is also full time on the farm, working in the areas of cattle feeding and cropping, and sister Lindsay, a recent UW-Platteville graduate, is taking care of calf feeding. Sister Jonna is a senior in high school and also works on the farm.

Justin emphasizes that he and Darren are planning full-time careers as the next generation on the farm and that there is room for his sisters if they should decide to do so.

Four farm kids don’t just decide to become part of the family farm without the encouragement and planning from parents, and Randy and Sue Langer long ago made those decisions.

Randy was actually a city boy from Marshall who worked on farms while growing up. Sue was a farm girl from DeForest. They met while both were working at nearby ABS Global, married and bought the herd and farm from her parents.

“We’re a very diversified family farm,” Randy says. “We are moving our 275-cow herd to an all-registered status, and we farm some 3,000 acres of owned and rented land.”

Not all farmers encourage their children to become farmers. But it certainly helps if the parents provide the opportunity for their children to learn, plan and benefit from their experiences growing up on the farm. That also means parents granting responsibility and requiring accountability from their children.

Yes, there are those who retain the vision of a family farm as mom, dad and the kids milking 50 cows. Most of our dairy farms are of that kind, and most of us former farm kids grew up on such farms. But economics of land prices, technology and 2011 living expectations are tough challenges to that system.

Successful family farmers don’t get there by luck. It’s about learning. Selecting top cattle and convincing their owners to consign them to the BDC sale are part of what young people learn. So is advertising the event, putting the details into a catalog, preparing the cattle, obtaining the outside experts (auctioneer, clerk, ring men, sponsors) to assist, and even preparing the old Livestock Pavilion for the gala.

And like Justin Langer did two years ago and 15-year-old Andrew Keller, son of Tim and Sandy Keller of Mount Horeb, did this year, buying a heifer to start your career.

It is obvious that despite what some folks say, the many young people eager to make farming their career means family farms will continue for a long time as progressive farm families plan for the future.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.