Geography and technology in dairying

Edward Lotterman | Agricultural Economist

Published January 1, 1995  | January 1995 issue

Just as some argue that biology determines destiny for human sexes, so geography long determined destiny in agriculture. In The Land that Feeds Us, University of Minnesota geographer John Fraser Hart describes how soils, topography, rain and temperature shaped agriculture as the United States was settled and how these factors are still important in determining which crops and livestock are important in different regions.

Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota are synonymous with dairying to many people. In 1992, Wisconsin farmers sold nearly $3 billion worth of dairy products which accounted for over half of all farm revenues in the state. But this regional strength in dairying was established a century ago in the late 1800s because the region's fertile soils, rolling topography, abundant rainfall and moderate temperatures gave it a comparative advantage in milk production based on grazing. Minnesota and Wisconsin's lush rolling pastures provided abundant forage, but were not competitive with the flatter prairies of Illinois and Iowa in corn and hog production or the more arid plains of Kansas, North Dakota and Montana in turning out wheat and beef.

When Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota were settled, dairying was labor intensive. Cows were milked, cream was separated and manure was pitched by hand. Initially even all aspects of hay production—cutting, raking, loading, storing in barns and feeding — were largely done by hand. Technology consisted of rudimentary tools— forks, rakes and tin pails. The number of cows and acres that could be tended, even by the large families of the day, was limited and thus farms were relatively small and rural population densities were high in comparison to agriculture to the south and west.

Electrification was the primary reason for the rapid change in dairying, which began 60 years ago and continues, virtually unabated, to the present. Only 11 percent of U.S. farms had electricity in 1935, one year prior to the establishment of the Rural Electrification Administration. By 1950 that was 77 percent and by 1960, 97 percent.

No other sector of American agriculture was as thoroughly transformed by the arrival of electricity as the dairy farm. The work in dairying is largely handling materials—milk, feed, water and manure. Initially farmers used electricity to light the barn, pump water and separate cream from milk. People soon devised ways to use motors to milk the cows themselves, cool milk in large bulk tanks rather than cans, clean manure from barns, grind grain, empty silos and distribute feed in bunks.

Perhaps most importantly in the Upper Midwest, electrification made silos practical forage storage systems. Since ensiled forages do not need to be dried nearly as much as hay, low-cost ensiling greatly reduced the cost of weather variability. Moreover, silos produced more palatable, more digestible dairy feeds from common crops such as corn and oats. Silos had existed prior to electrification and the development of the lightweight tractor, but since the moisture content of silage is high, it is also heavy. Handling silage was backbreaking labor until internal combustion engines and electricity could be harnessed to move it.

While electricity was key to the dominant technological breakthroughs in dairying, other innovations contributed to rapid change. The development of lightweight, rubber-tired tractors in the 1930s greatly increased the crop and forage acreage that one farmer could handle. And the perfection of techniques for freezing bull semen led to a genetic revolution in cattle breeding. Literally thousands of farmers could have their cows bred to the very best bulls and thus could improve their herds' genetic potential for milk production in a matter of a few years. Moreover, they were able to rid themselves of an expensive and frequently dangerous necessity, the bull. Interestingly, artificial insemination was one new technology that was perhaps more favorable to small producers than large ones. The cost of maintaining a bull for a milking herd of 10 was much larger on a per-cow basis than for a herd of 35 cows.

Herd nutrition, particularly in terms of ration balancing, and vitamin and mineral supplementation, also improved dramatically from the 1940s through the 1960s, effectively removing most of the seasonal variation in milk production that had plagued milkers since the domestication of the cow in prehistory.

The new technologies greatly increased output per cow, per acre and per farmer while eliminating much of the physical drudgery that had motivated successive cohorts of farm children to seek a better life in the city. But technology was a double-edged sword in at least two ways.

First, the substitution of capital for labor was not a one-time event, but rather an onrushing torrent that continues to the present. As successive waves of technology lowered production costs in real terms, market competition drove real milk prices lower. As labor-saving innovations made it possible for one person to handle more cows, more innovative and efficient farmers expanded their operations. These forces led smaller and less innovative milkers to realize lower and lower earnings from their herds.

Secondly, and perhaps more insidiously from the point of view of Ninth District dairy farmers, the new technologies increasingly nullified the advantages of topography and climate that had made Wisconsin "America's Dairyland." The new nutritional knowledge and forage handling technology that led Wisconsin farmers to keep their cows in the barn year-round rather than pasturing them could also, with a few modifications, be used to feed cows in northwest Arkansas, the Florida Panhandle, Idaho's Snake River Valley or on the outskirts of Phoenix.

The same technology that allowed a Minnesota farmer to milk 30 cows in 45 minutes rather than two hours could be scaled up to allow a handful of workers to milk 1,800 cows in an eight-hour shift. And while Wisconsin fields and pastures still produce succulent forages, time has shown that cows also love to eat alfalfa hay grown in irrigated deserts in the West.

Has technology overridden geography permanently? Many observers think not. John Waelti, head of the department of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, but who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, points out a crucial limitation in the West: "All of these big operations depend on irrigated alfalfa, and ultimately availability of water has to be a limit on further growth." Paul Wilson, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Arizona, agrees: "As the Southwest becomes more and more urbanized there is more and more competition for water. Ultimately, water is just going to be too expensive to use for growing alfalfa."

Furthermore, the facilities cost advantage that Southwest dairies were long thought to have may not be that great in comparison to new facilities in the Midwest. "We built barns to keep the farmer comfortable," says Cornell University agricultural economist Harry Kaiser, "but cows really don't need that level of environmental control. The new dairy housing for Minnesota and Wisconsin is going to be a lot cheaper and probably better for herd health than what we traditionally had."