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New programs boost Wisconsin's dairy industry

Wisconsin State Roundup

April 1, 1997

New programs boost Wisconsin's dairy industry

Wisconsin's dairy industry is offering management training, helping arrange sharecropping partnerships and recruiting farmers from other states to strengthen its position among dairy-producing states.

The growing pains of farm consolidation and volatility of milk prices have partly soured Wisconsin's dairy industry. The number of milk cows on Wisconsin farms decreased from 1.81 million in 1975 to 1.45 million milk cows in July 1996. While Wisconsin still had the most dairy cows in July 1996, it ranked 11th of 22 milk-producing states in milk production per cow.

Smaller dairy farms have consolidated into larger operations to increase efficiency and open opportunities for better management. However, sometimes when farms grow too fast, small problems can become big problems, says Larry Swain of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Rural Development Institute. "Some farms move too fast and too big, instead of being good before getting big."

This trend may change, however, as farmers receive more management training. Some farmers are learning how to analyze trends in their business to find areas they need to improve, Swain says. With that training, farm consolidation should offer more free time for farmers to manage their operations. This means that "instead of the farm running them, they run the farm," Swain says.

As farmers reach retirement, many wish to keep the farm in trustworthy hands. To preserve their small- to medium-sized farms, some Wisconsin farmers have adopted sharecropping, which is a partnership between an established farm owner ready to exit the industry and a young farmer just getting started. By sharing a milk check and receiving heifer calves, the young farmer builds his herd while the farm owner reduces his labor time and takes steps to leave the business.

"Sharecropping is good for young people without a lot of money to cover the upfront costs of starting their own farms," says Robert Cropp, dairy marketing and policy specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although only a few arrangements have been made so far, it is an option for the growing number of farmers approaching retirement. "A number of farmers would like to get out of farming, but would like to see the farm transferred," Cropp says.

The dairy industry has tried to support its farms by encouraging farmers from other states to move to Wisconsin. Last fall a delegation, including the state's Agriculture Secretary, pitched the benefits of dairy farming in Wisconsin to dairy farmers in California, citing the ability to grow feed, relatively higher milk prices and plenty of cheese processors that need milk.

So far it's been difficult to measure the impact. "Although inquiries have increased, we haven't seen big movements here," Cropp says. Some farmers in other states with herds of about 200 to 300 cows have expressed interest in moving to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, Cropp says.

The effort to recruit dairy farmers from other states may be better time spent helping the local people, Swain says. Furthermore, after the Wisconsin delegation visited California, the Trade and Commerce Agency of California struck back by encouraging Wisconsin cheese producers to move to California.

Rob Grunewald