Number of dairy farmers and cows shrinking

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published July 1, 1992  | July 1992 issue

Alarms sounded in the nation's leading dairy state when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported a dramatic drop in the number of Wisconsin dairy cows this spring.

The USDA survey cited a drop of 4,000 cows from February to March, the lowest count since 1931, leaving the state with 1.655 million cows. Since March 1991, the total number of cows declined by 83,000, the greatest yearly loss since 1966.

Although these figures may be of some concern to the state's more than 31,000 dairy farmers and others in the industry, it should be remembered that Wisconsin still produces about 24 billion pounds of milk annually, about 17 percent of the nation's supply. Second place California produces about 22 billion pounds, and New York is a distant third with 10 billion pounds of milk.

The root of the problem lies in volatile milk prices and low dairy price supports, according to Robert Cropp, dairy marketing and policy specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In addition, many small farmers have not kept up with technology and updated herd management techniques, Cropp says.

But the declining number of cows is nothing compared to the decline in the number of dairy farmers. About 1,000 dairy farms disappear each year, and Cropp predicts that up to a third of Wisconsin's dairy farmers will be out of business by the end of the decade.

That trend is a concern because livestock has a very high multiplier effect. "The farmer needs to buy seed and feed and the milk needs to be processed," Cropp says. "There's a lot of infrastructure tied up in dairy." And some land in Wisconsin is good only for livestock.

Cropp cites an example of how that multiplier effect can work: When some dairy farmers near Amery went out of business, the local farm supply coop felt such an impact from the lost revenue that it resorted to opening a restaurant to stay afloat.

But while Cropp sees signs of decline in dairy farming, he also notes some positive changes. Younger multiple-family operations are growing. "Chances are these farmers will buy more in the community than a one-family farm," Cropp says. And some farmers are also investing extra money to upgrade, but there's not enough of that, Cropp says. "Some banks have lost money on dairy farms, and now they're being conservative about lending."

Kathy Cobb