As of January 1, there were 7,292 total milk cow herds in Wisconsin, which was 818 fewer than at the beginning of 2019. The state lost 638 dairy farms in 2018, totaling almost 1,500 closed in just two years.
California has the most farms with a herd size surpassing 5,000 (35), while Wisconsin has the highest concentration of farms with less than 100 cows (4,756).
But according to the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW), local dairy still contributes more to the state’s economy ($45.6bn) than citrus does to Florida ($7.2bn) or potatoes do to Idaho ($2.7bn).
The 2017 dairy financials from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shared that dairy milk production supported 154,000 jobs in the state and generated $1.26bn in state and local taxes.
Chad Vincent, CEO of DFW, said, “The economic impact derived from agriculture in our state cannot be underestimated. Statewide dairy helps support a strong future for Wisconsin with job creation and tax revenue that goes toward better roads, new schools and a variety of other public services."
The shuttering of so many Wisconsin dairies points to the continued decline of small family farms in favor of major operations. For years, US dairy has struggled with too much milk production and low prices due to low consumer demand.
Trade has been an important and contentious factor, as Wisconsin exported more than $451m worth of dairy products in 2017, much of that being specialty cheese. Supporting the demand for the state’s dairy beyond its borders has been a renewed focus for the future of the industry.
In 2019 Wisconsin encouraged children to drink more milk, and groups lobbied to expand milk options to increase consumption from school lunches. The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act was introduced to include whole, low-fat and flavored milks.
At the time, the Wisconsin state assembly said it encouraged “all efforts to increase consumption of milk, up to and including whole flavored milk, among America's youth. The Wisconsin State Legislature should do everything in its power to support this industry that is so vital to the economy and culture of our beloved state.”
The state indicated support for the industry last year in the form of funding for a ‘hub’ of programs in the University of Wisconsin system. The $8.8m investment will help hire faculty and researchers, create an Advanced Dairy Management Academy, improve research labs and farms and purchase equipment.
UW System President Ray Cross said, “The Dairy Innovation Hub holds great promise for assisting Wisconsin’s dairy industry. It’s another example of the way the UW System is meeting the needs of Wisconsin.”