Wisconsin has more milk for the state's growing cheese market. The gap between the milk needed by Wisconsin cheese makers and the state's milk supply has narrowed, thanks to recent efforts to re-invigorate dairy, according to Rod Nilsestuen, Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
"We need to grow our milk supply," says Nilsestuen. "There's more demand for Wisconsin cheese than we have milk to fill it. But I am pleased to see a trend closing the gap."
The shortage of milk for cheese production in 2004 was about 17%. The variance dropped to near 15% in 2005 and 2006, according to calculations by University of Wisconsin dairy economist Robert Cropp, PhD.
"With now two consecutive years of good growth in milk production the shortage has narrowed despite more cheese production," says Cropp.
Wisconsin probably would produce even more cheese, if it had the milk, he said. Data shows that cheese production declines when the state's milk production declines and increases when milk production increases.
The state's milk supply has been growing steadily at about 2 to 3% for the past several years, and so has the Wisconsin cheese market. Ninety percent of the milk produced in Wisconsin is used to make cheese. The rest is used for drinking and other uses.
Wisconsin dairy cow numbers increased in 2006, turning around a slow decline spanning two decades. Milk production in 2007 is on track to surpass recent years.
Nilsestuen attributes the growth in cow numbers and milk production in part to more diversity in the sizes of farms and methods of farming. Agricultural diversity is encouraged by Governor Doyle's Grow Wisconsin plan to create jobs.
Today, Wisconsin dairy entrepreneurs are large and small, modern and traditional, fifth generation and just getting started. They are high tech and looking to renewable energy as a new way to make a profit and they are low tech and putting cows on pasture.
"Diversity is our strength," says Nilsestuen. "Like a healthy ecosystem, diversity begets more diversity and innovation. Innovation positions us to lead."
Diversity also enables individual dairy entrepreneurs to find niche markets where they can add value to their product. For example, the demand for organic products has been growing at about 20% a year. Wisconsin ranks number one in the nation for organic dairies.
Half of the state's beginning farmers now practice intensive rotational grazing. Grazing costs less to get started; requires less labor to maintain and takes advantage of the state's capacity to grow grass. Milk from grass-fed cows supplies another growing niche market, specialty cheese.
Cheese making itself has grown more diverse. Cheese artisans have added 40 new types of cheese to the list made in Wisconsin, bringing the total to over 600. Wisconsin produces more varieties of cheese than any other state or nation.
And the cheese plants that produce it are more diverse, ranging from large cooperatives processing milk from thousands of farms to dozens of mid-size factories processing milk from five to 50 dairy farms to a growing number of farmstead plants using milk from one herd.
Demand for cheese and other products from goat and sheep milk is also growing. This past year Canada's largest goat cheesemaker chose Wisconsin for its expansion into the United States.