Although California now produces more milk than Wisconsin, the Wisconsin family dairy farmer is still this state's major breadwinner. Most dairymen use a stanchion or tie stall barn and tower silos to house and milk cattle and to store feed, no different than dairymen used for nearly 100 years. By building onto the barn and adding silos, many Wisconsin dairymen today milk 60 to 100 cows. Only recently are large numbers of family farmers discontinuing milking to produce easier and often more profitable agricultural commodities as corn or young stock.
Two momentous changes began in rural Wisconsin around the turn of the century, that are changing the countryside. The milking parlor, freestall housing, horizontal high moisture feed storage and liquid manure storage are replacing the stanchion barn and tower silo. City limits literally ruptured and hundreds of new small communities of cul-de-sacs and rural non-farm homes are being built on productive cropland that previously produced high yields of alfalfa and corn. These new non-farm residents now share ground water, country air and rural roads with neighboring dairy farmers. Both of these changes brought new seemingly unsolvable problems.
Freestalls and a milking parlor made the milking chore much easier and allowed one worker to milk, feed and care for many more cows. Still limited, an increasing number of new dairy units are being built for roughly 100 to 1,000 cows. These new units are not "factory farms" or "corporation farms," common uncomplimentary terms. Most are owned and managed by dairy farm-reared and experienced young farmers. Many of the larger units employ Hispanic labor for milking, feeding and other dairy chores. Few American employees want to milk cows every 12 hours, day in and day out. Many Hispanics are willing workers and accept these inconvenient hours. Hispanics are doing unwanted jobs and are performing an increasingly important role in Wisconsin's economy.
A common definition of the "family dairy farm" was a unit where a farm family provided all of the ownership, management and labor. This definition was never totally satisfactory nor had the same meaning for everyone. Unlike most labor in our society, dairymen do not operate with a chain of command, a four-hour week or a guaranteed salary or wage. Older dairymen seldom retire – they often help the next generation until health intervenes.
The "family farmer" usually grew, stored and fed all of his roughage and corn grain. Only limited supplemental feeds, usually protein and mineral supplements were purchased. Cow manure was recycled on the same fields from which homegrown feedstuffs were harvested. Manure supplied much of needed crop nutrients and reduced the need for purchased fertilizers, usually additional nitrogen for corn and potash for alfalfa. University calculated costs of production are often a poor fit for the family dairy farm. Over the past 100 years, many progressive and productive family dairy farms were transferred intact through four generations of farm-raised youth, a tremendous boost to Wisconsin's economy and to everyone's paycheck.
With new liquid manure systems and new non-farm neighbors came new problems. Unlike feedlots in Colorado or hog farms in Iowa where strong odors persist all summer, Wisconsin liquid dairy manure in storage usually does not have an objectionable odor until agitated and spread. Then odors can be very strong, penetrating and persistent. More serious however, is the limited time and location where liquid manure can be spread with Wisconsin's short growing season and a large share of cropland in perennial hay crops. The spring planting season is very short with little time to spread liquid manure, even through storage units may be full from a long winter. When large volumes of liquid manure from many dairy farms are transported and spread, especially for long distances, accidents and spills are inevitable. Solid manure with generous quantities of bedding crops as a carrier had the advantage of producing less odor and could be stored safely in many waste areas and reloaded and spread when time and conditions were more favorable.
New non-farm homes and highways are taking much valuable cropland permanently out of production agriculture. Farmers wishing to get out of farming often have the option of selling to a neighboring dairyman hoping to expand or to a developer who will pay several times the land's agricultural value to start another rural non-farm community. Previous government programs to keep farmland in agriculture with incentives or with zoning have failed. Preserving farmland for farming purposes or to return to nature is a major challenge today.
- Kraemer is a retired Chippewa County Extension agricultural agent.