Wisconsin is called “America’s Dairyland”. The state has the most dairy farms in the country.
It lost 826 dairy farms in 2019, or 10% of its dairy herds – the most dramatic loss in the state’s history, a part of a downward trend which saw the state lose 44% of its dairy farms over the last decade.
Last year, for the first time in state history, the number of dairy farms dipped below 7,000.
At the same time, milk production in the state has increased every year since 2004, and sets a new annual record each year since 2009.
In the last decade alone, Wisconsin has increased milk production by 25%. The number of operations declines, just as the number of cows per operation goes up – 3% of Wisconsin farms now produce roughly 40% of the state’s milk. Milk produced on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), or farms with more than about 700 cows but often housing thousands, is increasingly making up the state’s overall milk production. The number of large farms like this in Wisconsin has increased by 55% in less than a decade.
Despite having five farms with 500 or more cows, Green county still has many of Wisconsin’s small dairy farms, about 200, with between 50 and 100 cows, milked by the family. The county went from being a highly competitive marketplace for generations to an area like so many others in the state where too much milk is being produced. When the price of milk is down, farmers milk more cows to compensate; if the milk price is up, they milk more to capitalize. The excess of milk matches up with a plummet in consumption as milk alternatives and water are chosen over milk. And the glut is worldwide, driving down prices for farmers to the point they are barely breaking even or are losing money to produce it. On top of that, a Green county co-op of 25 local farms that accept 3.5m pounds (1.6m kg) of milk to create 400,000 pounds (182,000 kg) of cheese a month unexpectedly shut down last fall after 110 years due to pandemic-specific industry volatility. A shutdown like this is very rare, and left farmers scrambling for new processors to offload their milk.
Milk prices were at a record high in 2014, then from 2015 on, went down. When prices are good, small dairy farmers, able to finally turn a profit, make longstanding crucial repairs on the smaller scale, and do some significant expansions on the large level. In early 2015 in Green county farmers were so confident in expanding that if you wanted to put up a building, you were lucky if you could find an available contractor. But the good times never last.
Last year, tankers were loading up milk and driving it straight to the farm’s manure pit, opening the valve, and letting it go – milk dumping like this is quite extreme. Yet even in a year that started with unprecedented dumping, cows being culled, and milk sold at very distressed prices, then continuing with a milk price of $13 per 100 pounds (£9.32 per 45 kg) of milk in the spring and summer – which is less than the cost of production for most farmers – 2020 ended with a high demand for cheese. This was thanks in part to the government’s pandemic food assistance programs. By the end of the year the state’s dairy farms again increased total production to 30.7bn pounds (13.9bn kg) of milk. And on it goes.