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Artisanship key for manufacturer at Ramona

Staff writer

Most businesses do not bother to stop a hard-working employee in the middle of a work day to give visitors a tour of its building. But for Tatge Manufacturing in Ramona, those visitors are looking to examine their old high school stomping grounds.

Operating out of an old high school on the west end of Main Street is one of the unique aspects of the small company.

There are not many businesses in Marion County that have made the same product for 50 years either.

Herington farm implement dealer Bud Welsch bought the original design for a livestock pesticide applicator in 1954. The company operated out of two locations in Herington and Ramona. About 20 years ago, the business moved everything to Ramona after Warren Gfeller of Olathe, Craig Hagen of Wisconsin, and Al Johnson of Wisconsin bought the business.

Including Tatge’s digs, not much about the business is new, except that its business model could have been brainstormed in the Internet era. Tatge sells a specific product to a specific customer.

Livestock pesticide applicators come in different varieties, but the principle goal of the product stays the same — have cows, goats, or horses brush themselves up against a curtain or post that emits pesticide that will keep flies off their coats.

There is one model that utilizes the natural instinct of cattle to scratch against a dead tree. The machine features three chain-link adorned scratching posts connected to a tank, which contains a pesticide. Other applicators include a curtained sheath around the milking area for dairy cattle and a tiered curtain system around an enclosed feeding area for calves.

Once cattle become comfortable with an applicator, they use it repeatedly, Tatge machinist Michelle Stanford said. Applicators keep their coats at show-quality sheen. Without the constant nagging of flies, cattle are healthier, producing more. Wisconsin is Tatge’s No. 1 sales area. For dairy cattle, the use of an applicator can allow cows to produce as much as two to five gallons more milk per day.

“Some run it all year long because the cows love it,” Stanford said.

Tatge’s other reasons for maintaining a long-running business are decidedly old school. Tatge generally prescribes to the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“We do modernize to a point, but we don’t jeopardize the integrity of the product,” Stanford said.

Tatge takes mostly raw materials — 20-foot pipe, solid metal hoods spun from wire, cotton rollers, and sheets of cotton — and constructs applicators in Ramona. The process goes from cutting to shaping to welding to painting all the way to sewing curtains.

“We do it all,” Stanford said.

Not much about the production process has changed since 1954, including the machines. Stanford said a five-ton punch, which touches nearly every piece of metal that goes through the shop, is over 50 years old. A mechanized drill, a convenient tool to create properly sized connections, is also at least 50 years old. Over time, longtime machinist Dave Frantz learned to how to maintain the machines and he taught Stanford what he knows.

Using old-fashioned artisanship making the applicators out of metal, the base of applicators will last, basically, forever, Stanford said. Stanford said some ranchers have brought back applicators built in the 1960s just to be repainted.

How does Tatge stay in business if its product lasts forever? Tatge produces its own pesticide, and curtains need to be replaced every three to five years.

Also, ranchers see applicators in the fields of colleagues and wonder about the sturdy product.

Stanford said 90 to 95 percent of Tatge’s business is return customers. As ranches and dairy operations expand, clients add applicators. Especially for Marion County customers, Tatge also takes on specialized projects such as boat covers or cloth tool pouches.

There is also a small-company charm to Tatge that is appealing to its rural customer base. Even though Stanford has not worked as long as Frantz, she said she can pick up the phone and tell who the customers are by voice.

Even the location in Ramona is an attribute customers appreciate.

“The first time I talk to a customer I tell them we’re in a small town. They won’t find it on the map,” Stanford said. “They find that part of the charm.”

Ranchers have noticed something about applicators: elder cows will teach calves to use them. A similar occurrence has transpired at Tatge. When Stanford started six years ago, she was a former nurse and server with zero factory experience. Despite a lack of knowledge, Frantz and Paul Jones took Stanford under their wing. Now, with the exception of Mig welding, she can do any job in the production line.

“It’s not like going to a job, it’s like going to see extended family,” Stanford said. “It’s one of the best work environments. People do care what’s going on.”

Last modified March 1, 2012

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