My husband and I dairy farmed from the 1970s until 2009. We owned and operated a dairy farm near Brandon, Wis., about a half mile from where we live now in western Fond du Lac County. When we bought our farm in 1987, it seemed like everyone was a dairy farmer. There were nearly 1,000 dairy farms in Fond du Lac County back then.
It was a different culture, and it made for some interesting times. One hot July night in 1989, there was a knock at our door at about 9:30. I opened the door and a woman said she just hit a “cow” on the road in front of our farm. She and her husband were OK, but their car was pretty damaged, and the animal ran off into a cornfield across the road from our farm. The corn was tasseled and taller than the “cow,” but she thought there were about six or seven “cows” altogether. My husband went out and checked on our cows and heifers to make sure it was none of our animals. They were all in. So, I started calling the neighbors. In addition to us, nine of our neighbors milked cows and raised heifers within a 1-mile radius of our farm.
The first neighbor I called was our neighbor to the north. They checked and called me back and said it wasn’t their cows or heifers. I called another neighbor. Meanwhile, the cops came out. They told us they saw a group of heifers, not cows, run across the road into a cornfield on the neighbor’s farm to the north of our farm. I called them again and asked them to make sure their heifers were in. They called back and said they were missing some heifers. The next day, a couple of the heifers came home, and then the following day, all but three of them showed up. It took a week to get the last three captured. They ended up 3 miles southwest of our farm.
If that had happened today, it would be easy to figure out whose heifers were out because cows are milked on only one of those 10 farms — the farm across the road from our former farm. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Madison, there are only 172 dairy farms left in Fond du Lac County today.
Plummeting dairy farm numbers
The number of dairy farms in the state dropped to 6,804 on May 1 this year, according to NASS. On May 1, 2020, there were 7,168 dairy farms in Wisconsin. That’s a loss of 364 dairy farms in one year. To put it another way, Wisconsin lost one dairy farm per day between May 2020 and May 2021.
According to Greg Bussler, state statistician for NASS, the real story has been the decline over the past four years. Wisconsin lost 2,515 dairy farms between 2017 and 2021. The state had 9,304 dairy farms in 2017. That’s a loss of 628 farms per year, on average, between 2017 and 2021.
“The steepest decline was in 2019, when 773 farms stopped shipping milk,” Bussler says. The state had 100,000 dairy farms in 1960 and 37,325 dairy farms in 1987, according to NASS.
While dairy farm numbers have dropped, Bussler notes that milk production has steadily increased. Wisconsin was producing 24.8 billion pounds of milk from 37,325 farms 34 years ago in 1987. Production in 2020 totaled 30.6 billion pounds with just under 6,932 farms. Cow numbers in Wisconsin declined from 1.8 million cows in 1987 to 1.3 million cows on Jan. 1, 2021. Milk production per cow increased from 13,816 pounds in 1990 to 24,408 in 2020.
Five years of low milk prices followed by a pandemic and now high feed prices has forced a lot of farms to make the difficult decision to quit milking cows. Sadly, I believe this trend will continue because even though there are fewer farms and fewer farmers milking cows, the number of cows is staying about the same and milk production per cow keeps increasing. The cows are just changing addresses.
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