The Dairy Industry includes dairy cows, feed mills, dairy equipment manufacturers, veterinarians, construction companies, milk haulers, genetic companies, dairy plants and software companies all of which help drive the state’s economy. The focus here is on the cows.
Wisconsin has seven breeds of cattle used by the Dairy industry. Click on them individually to learn more (The ones in yellow):
Red and White Holstein
I am activating these breeds one by one. Boxed Links exist for those I have activated.
“Cows bookended our daily existence and kept the pace of our lives. We learned all about cows, calves, heifers - two year olds ready to breed - by observation and by playing and working around them. Most of our herd were brown and white Guernseys, known for producing milk rich with butterfat - literally a farmer’s bread and butter. We also had a handful of black and white Holsteins, bigger cows who gave more milk that was far less rich in fat. My favorite cows, maybe because they looked like teddy bears, were our two Brown Swiss - Brownie, who led the herd, and Swiss Sister, who still had her horns. For safety, Dad removed most of our calves’ horn nubs. However, docile Swiss Sister was not a threat, even with her horns.
“Cows carried the personalities of their breed: Guernseys were gentle, like Brown Swiss; big-boned Holsteins pushed their weight around. But individual cows had personalities, too. Like people, cows could be calm and complacent or ornery and stubborn; some cows bossed other bovines around; some were bright natural leaders, others timid followers. They could be independent loners, or outcasts. Like chickens, cows had a pecking order. Cows stayed away from bullies and recognized well-behaved leaders for their intelligence and experience in keeping the herd in check”.
Brief history - Dairy and Cheese
From 1840 to 1880, Wisconsin was known as “America’s Breadbasket” because one-sixth of the nation’s wheat was grown in the state.
Because of low prices and invasion of tiny insects known as the chinch bugs, wheat production diminished and gave rise to alternatives: dairy and cheese.
The dairy industry in Wisconsin grew quickly.
Many of the young farmers that settled in southern Wisconsin in the 1840’s and 1850’s were New Yorkers and they brought with them skills needed for dairying including butter and cheese making.
By 1915, Wisconsin had become the leading dairy producer in the country. The designation of America’s Dairyland arrived in 1930 and the state legislature added the phrase to the state’s license plates in 1939.
Wisconsin has more than license plates to prove its acclaim as a leading dairy producer.
Historically, Wisconsin landscape has been dotted with small family farms whose primary purpose was milk production. Farming identified Wisconsin culture and left a legacy in families.
Family farms have been passed down for generations. Today’s farmers are 4th or 5th generation representatives. This is the mantle at the Rieckmann’s farm in Fremont in 2019, photo by Jason Vaughn for Time magazine.
Milk was sold locally to support the family and to pay for the general operation of the farm including the buildings and cattle.
Farmers have dominated our land for over 170 ears.
Farming was not a job; it was a way of life, a labor of love, that preserved history, the landscape and the precious land itself. Farmers have long viewed themselves as stewards of the land.
Wisconsin is still home to 7,000 dairy farms, more than any other state.
These dairy farms are also home to 1. 28 million cows.
The dairy industry contributes $45.6 billion annually to Wisconsin ‘s economy. The industry includes feed mills, dairy equipment manufacturers, veterinarians, construction companies, milk haulers, genetic companies, dairy plants and software companies all of which help drive the state’s economy.
A Changing Wisconsin Landscape
The familiar Wisconsin landscape of small family farms has been changing for about 60 years. California jumped ahead of Wisconsin as “America’s Dairyland” in 1993, though Wisconsin remains solidly in the number two spot..
In the 1960’s there was a large loss of dairy farms in the state when farmers transitioned to bulk tanks for collecting milk. The 10 gallon steel cans became obsolete.
Fifty years ago, then Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out”.
Changes came in waves book ended by times of great upheaval, sharper downturns, strife, and sheer devastation for the small family farmers.
In just the last period of change, the five years between 2014 and 2019, the change has been life altering and, in a few cases, even life ending. a few farmers claimed their own lives as they faced the magnitude of changes coming their way.
John Oncken, writing for “Wisconsin State Farmer” published in January 5, 2021, wrote:
“For the first time in modern dairy history (since Wisconsin became a dairy state), the number of licensed dairy herds in the state fell below 7,000.
“As of Dec. 1, 2020, the number stood at 6,949 – a decline of 343 from the 7,292 of a year ago. The loss of nearly 400 dairy operations is rather severe, but not as bad as last year, when 818 dairies closed.
“Stories have begun to appear in the media detailing how families have had to sell their dairy farms, some many generations old, and how the big corporate dairies are taking over.”
From ancestors back many generations who once claimed the land, to those who have claimed their lives today, is a moment for pause and reverence to the farm families and their way of life.
Many factors in combination have contributed to the current crisis facing Wisconsin small family farms including milk pricing, a complex issue in itself, economies of scale, trade wars, improved genetics and milk production.
Decreasing milk prices over the past few years have been devastating as farmers have been forced out of business.
“Milwaukee Journal Sentinel” writer Andrew Mollica characterized Wisconsin dairy farmers as a “portrait of loss”. The state was shedding almost two farms per day during 2018-2019.
In 2004, WI had 15, 904 dairy farms and by 2018 the number stood at 7808.*
As farms fell silent, it also signaled trouble for rural communities, schools and churches which for years defined the fabric of small towns.