When I moved to Wisconsin from northern Illinois 40 years ago, there were 49,000 dairy farms in the Dairy State — that was down from 103,143 dairy farms in 1957, 20 years earlier. The average farm family milked 37 cows back in 1977. Most farm labor was provided by the dairy farmers and their families, and many families back then were large.
Fast-forward to today, and it’s obvious things in America’s Dairyland have changed quite a bit. According to Greg Bussler, state statistician for the Wisconsin field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin fell below 9,000 as of Sept. 1. There are now 8,970 dairy farms in Wisconsin, which is 477 fewer farms than on Sept. 1 one year ago. Today, farm families are smaller and dairy farms are much larger. According to the University of Wisconsin Extension Dairy Team, hired labor is supporting about two-thirds of the milk production in Wisconsin.
Record milk production
Wisconsin farmers did produce a record 30.1 billion pounds of milk last year, and are on pace to exceed that amount this year. They are milking 1.28 million dairy cows in 2017, compared to 1.81 million cows 40 years ago.
If you do the math, there is an average of 142 cows on each dairy farm in Wisconsin; they produced 23,552 pounds of milk per cow in 2016, which is a record amount. In 1977, Wisconsin cows averaged only 11,676 pounds of milk per cow. Total production in 1977 was 20.29 billion pounds of milk.
In 1957, 2.3 million dairy cows in Wisconsin produced 16.9 billion pounds of milk, which works out to 7,360 pounds per cow.
If you are wondering how many farms of all types are in Wisconsin, there are 68,700 farms.
According to Bussler, as of 2015 (the most recent year he has statistics available), the top five milk-producing counties in Wisconsin are:
2. Fond du Lac
If you think the large dairy farms outnumber the smaller dairy farms, you’re wrong. According to Bussler, in 2012, (the most recent year the information is available), Wisconsin had 11,543 dairy farms. Of those, 8,757 had fewer than 100 cows, and 815 farms milked between 200 and 500 cows. There were 258 dairy farms with 500 to 1,000 cows, and 106 farms milking between 1,000 and 2,500 cows. Only 25 farms had more than 2,500 cows each. So the vast majority of dairy farms in Wisconsin, about 76%, milk fewer than 100 cows.
Wisconsin has been keeping track of dairy farm numbers since 1950. At that time, there were 143,000 dairy farms in the state.