World Dairy Expo brings dairy prominence into focus

posted Oct. 16, 2017 9:56 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jim Massey, Editor |

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Rural people in Wisconsin might grow tired of hearing dairy industry and government people talk about how important dairy is to the state, but now that another successful World Dairy Expo is in the books, some of the statistics might be worth repeating.

Thousands of visitors — from all over the world — flocked to Madison during the first week of October to see some of North America’s best dairy cattle, to learn about industry issues and see some of the latest technology on the market. Why do they all come to Wisconsin? Because Wisconsin is the center of the dairy industry in the most technologically advanced nation on Earth.

The state is second in the nation in milk production — with 30 billion pounds of milk produced in 2016, behind California’s 40 billion — but ranks No. 1 in the U.S. in overall cheese production and specialty cheese production. Wisconsin cheese production has set a new production record every year since 2002. 

Wisconsin is the only state that offers advanced education in cheesemaking, with 70 of the state’s cheesemakers having earned the right to be called “Master Cheesemakers.”

According to a UW-Madison study, dairy means $43.4 million to Wisconsin, more than twice as much as the Florida citrus and Idaho potato industries combined. 

Ninety-six percent of Wisconsin dairy farms are family owned, with only 1 percent owned by non-family corporations and 3 percent owned by non-family partnerships. 

Those are all good things, for the most part. Officials have lauded the increase in milk production as being a great thing for Wisconsin, but we all found out earlier this year that having too much of a good thing isn’t always the answer, either. Some dairy farms lost their markets in April and had to struggle to find another dairy plant to take their milk, because nearly every plant was at capacity.

The history of Wisconsin’s dairy heritage is fascinating to review. According to the Wisconsin State Historical Society, the state’s 1850 census records revealed 90 percent of the state’s population lived on farms. 

At the turn of the century (1899) Wisconsin had 1,500 cheese factories located at rural crossroads where farmers could deliver their daily milk. At that time, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms were raising dairy cows.

By 1921, the number of cheese factories had increased to 2,800, and in 1935, the number of Wisconsin farms with cows reached its highest point at 180,695.

Not all of those 1935 farmers made a living as a dairy farmer, as some of those farms milked five cows to go along with a few chickens, pigs and beef animals. But still, for those of us who weren’t alive in 1935, it’s hard to imagine there being milk cows on 180,000 farms. 

That’s because 82 years later, there are now fewer than 9,000 dairy farms in the state. As of Sept. 1, the number of Wisconsin dairies stood at 8,970 dairy farms, down by 477 from a year earlier.

That is not a good trend.

The state has fewer dairy farms, but those farms are producing more milk than ever before. The average number of cows per farm in Wisconsin in 2016 was 134, although there are several farms with 5,000 cows or more. The tiny farms with 20 cows or fewer are evaporating quickly, especially since many dairy plants began refusing to take milk from Grade B dairy farms. 

So what does the future hold? How long can the downward trend continue? If the state loses 477 dairy farms a year for the next 10 years, there will be only 4,200 dairy farms left. 

The number of dairy farms will have to stabilize eventually, but when that will be is anybody’s guess.

The state Legislature added the phrase “America’s Dairyland” to the state’s license plates in 1939 when Wisconsin officially took over as the nation’s leading milk producer. Fortunately, the Legislature didn’t vote to remove the phrase when California took over as the milk leader in 1993.

For all intents and purposes, Wisconsin is still America’s Dairyland. Some people predict Wisconsin could someday have the milk production title back, as California dairy farms continue to dwindle and environmental rules stiffen and water issues rise. The state has about 1,300 dairy farms and 1.74 million cows.

But regardless of which state produces more milk, Wisconsin is the epicenter of dairy activity in the country. It has more dairy plants, more dairy-related companies and a dairy infrastructure second to none. It has a climate and soils suitable to producing milk. And that is all brought into clearer focus when the World Dairy Expo comes to town.

So raise a glass of milk to Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland today and for many years to come!

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