As has been the case every year since the 1930s, the number of dairy cows in Wisconsin decreased in 2022. Down from 6,533 a year earlier, the 417 herd losses this year were around average.
I noted a decline from 71,000 dairy farms in our state in 1968 to 23,000 in 1998 in an article I penned back in those days. In 30 years, that’s a decrease of 48,000, or 1,600 year, or 4.3 herds every day. Wow!”
So, to recap
An article from around the same period cited a research by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) that stated “a stiffer, harsher economic climate was blamed for many of the losses.”
Hold on a second…is it really a tougher, harsher business environment to go from milking cows twice a day with a bucket-style milker in an old wooden stanchion barn with small, narrow dairy stalls to a modern dairy operation, where you don’t have to climb a silo every day and where you don’t have to lift every bale of hay? For many farmers in the dairy industry, investing in themselves financially was like buying freedom.
Not out of the ordinary
The Oncken dairy herd’s decline was fairly typical of the era (and what is still happening today). When I was in high school, my father would periodically bring up the idea of expanding the farm by purchasing the next property, expanding the barn, and increasing the number of cattle by 50%. As a high school athlete, I too don’t recall being very enthusiastic about the prospect. I always simply figured it would work out that way and that I’d be the one to purchase the property someday. When first presented with this concept, I didn’t give it much attention.
Not that I attempted to hide the fact that I
After I had finished high school in the month of August, I approached my father with my question regarding the farm’s future expansion. He finally decided against it after much deliberation, he explained. He said that he had been in debt for the better part of his agricultural career, and that he didn’t feel like taking on any more debt now that his farm was paid off.
I didn’t disagree with his choice but understood that my destiny was out of his hands. Fortunately, I had a scholarship from the University of Wisconsin–Madison that would cover my education costs for a number of years and help me get a foot in the door professionally.
Calculating the odds
Dairy herds decreased by 48 thousand during the 30 years between 1968 and 1998, or by an average of 1,600 year, or by an average of 4.3 herds every day. Only 6,116 herds remain, down about 17,000 since 1998 (1.5 herds each day over the past year), and more, smaller decreases are virtually certainly inevitable in the years to follow.
Three generations of the Meinholz family have taken what began as a small barn with dirt floors and a handful of cows and expanded it into three successful Blue Star Dairies.
Many of the 300 mega dairies started when dads and sons merged their modest farms or grew their existing farms to include new generations of farmers. One piece of labor-saving technology replaced numerous sets of antiquated, outmoded, labor-intensive rubbish, resulting in a larger farm.
“Many farms that couldn’t compete ended up as (failed) farm statistics,” the NMPF stated. Hold on a second! When they say you “couldn’t compete,” what do they mean? None of the farmers I know have given up the trade because they felt they couldn’t “compete” with others in the industry. Many farmers I know have given up the lifestyle because they wanted to retire and, thankfully, a family member or friend offered them the means (money) to do so.
Many farmers give up the profession because they can’t make a living on the land they formerly farmed. However, the most likely competitors for their property are not other farmers, but rather real estate developers, industrialists, city planners, highway construction crews, and wealthy city dwellers.
Like electricians, plumbers, attorneys, authors, computer professionals, and even physicians, some dairy farmers inevitably fail. Divorce, illness, family strife, bad weather, and…incompetence un one’s chosen field are just few of the numerous factors that can lead to financial ruin. Simply put, most dairies do not collapse, but the cows have been sold and the business has closed.
Small dairies, if well run, have a long future.
The fact that two or three cousins succeeded where one had previously failed by opening a new dairy and shutting down three older ones is not indicative of failure on their part. It’s an affront to the forward-thinking farmers who put in the time, effort, and resources to create successful dairy businesses. There is a good chance that the new, state-of-the-art facility will be a huge success, both in terms of improved quality of life and profits.
Many dairy farmers’ offspring went on to further education and flourish as professors, business executives, and other professionals. They made the decision not to farm, and eventually sold the homestead to a new farming family or even the city next door. An additional notation in the “farm loss” statistics.
Dairy farming today is founded on technology, business planning, and lifestyle choices that result in larger farms, and successful farmers realise this. However, it’s not a picnic: there’s a lot of hard work and long hours involved, a lot of money is required (as in many enterprises), not everyone is cut out for it, mother nature still has the final say, success is seldom guaranteed, and failures occur despite the best of intentions.
True, it pains me to see the abandoned barns and farmhouses where I once sipped coffee and reminisced with farmer friends who are no longer working the land.
Before we go to battle over the worrying news of shrinking dairy herds, I’d like to know how many dairy farms Wisconsin needs and who should be in charge of them. That is something both I personally and a whole sector of the economy would benefit from knowing.