I wish I had good news to share about milk prices, trade wars, tariffs, dairy surpluses and the future, but I don’t. President Donald Trump says a “very monumental agreement” may be announced in early May about the trade war with China. I hope that’s true and that he’s not just leading us on. In February and March, he said he was close to resolving the trade war.
In the meantime, I checked with Greg Bussler at the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Madison, Wis., to find out how many dairy farms we still have in Wisconsin. I learned last week about three more dairy farm families who are selling their herds in April, and I figured the numbers would not be good. Sadly, I was right.
Dairy farm numbers plummet
According to Bussler, 212 Wisconsin dairy farms went out of business between Jan. 1 and April 1. That means on average, more than two dairy farms sold out each day of the first 90 days of 2019. That’s on top of the 691 dairy farms we lost during 2018. In just 15 months, the Dairy State lost 903 dairy farms, or slightly fewer than two farms per day. That’s more than 10% of Wisconsin’s dairy farms going out of business in just 15 months. The numbers don’t lie — that is painful for the farm families who sold their dairy herds, the communities they live in and the businesses they supported.
That is the most dairy farms Wisconsin has lost in one year since 2011, when 645 farms left the dairy business. In 2009, 588 dairy farms sold out.
According to NASS, 10 years ago Wisconsin was home to 13,294 dairy farms. In 1999, we had 21,624 dairy farms. Forty years ago, there were 45,783 dairy farms in America’s Dairyland.
I asked Bussler how many dairy cows are in Wisconsin. He said as of April 1, there were 1,270,000 cows, or about the same number as on Jan. 1, 2018. That means while we have 903 fewer dairy farms than we did 15 months ago, we didn’t lose any cows — some of them just changed their address.
In fact, even with less than 20% of the dairy farms Wisconsin had in 1979, Wisconsin set a record in 2018 for the most pounds of milk produced in the Dairy State in one year, thanks to better cows, better farmers, better feed, better facilities and better genetics.
I hope all of you who are still dairy farming will be able to continue to do so a year from now. During that time, President Trump needs to end the trade war with China, and he needs to remove the tariffs on steel and aluminum from Mexico and Canada so they will sign the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement.
I also hope President Trump stops threatening to close the Southern border. U.S. dairy farmers’ top three export customers are Mexico, China and Canada. In 2018, mostly before the trade war started in July, the U.S. exported 16% of its dairy products. It will no doubt be a challenge to rebuild our trade with foreign countries to levels they were before the trade war began, but that will be necessary to improve milk prices and stop the demise of so many Wisconsin dairy farms.