Though Wisconsin's number of dairy cows continues to hold steady, the state lost well over 600 dairy farm operations in the last year, presumably an indication of the poor margins, the severe drought that trimmed feed supplies and perhaps the age of dairy farmers.
Members of the board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection discussed the loss of dairy farms last week during their meeting in Madison.
Secretary Ben Brancel said that the historical pattern has seen the state lose about 400 dairy farms per year. "That has been the normal pattern over the long term. When you see something that's larger than that number you know that something else has happened."
The number of dairy farmers that exited milk production likely did so because of drought and feed issues, he said, as well as problems this year getting crops planted. That situation may lead to more feed shortages, he added.
Weather this year, in the early part of the summer, found excess rain in many areas of the state and that contributed to farmers not being able to get their hay crops harvested.
Some areas of the state experienced severe winterkill of their alfalfa crops, which will also lead to feed shortages and may have contributed to some farmers selling their cows.
On the other hand, where farmers didn't have winterkill problems, Brancel said he's hearing good reports on forage production. He is encouraging farmers who have extra feed supplies to place them on the farmer-to-farmer exchange.
That exchange, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Extension is at www.farmertofarmer.uwex.edu and is intended to put together farmers who need feed in the form of hay, forage and corn, with those who have those feedstuffs for sale.
"That availability of feed may help another farmer stay in business," he said.
Even with the loss of dairy farms over the last few years Wisconsin still leads in the number of dairy farms and in their diversity, says Marty Grosse, an agricultural program specialist at DATCP.
Behind Wisconsin are Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota and Ohio in number of dairy farms.
Twenty-two percent of Wisconsin's dairy farms are grass-based and the state has around 500 organic dairy farms.
Grosse said dairy doesn't just mean cows. The state is number-one is goat milk production and is home to two of the largest goat and sheep milk processing facilities in the country.
Dairy farms in all their diversity face challenges from market volatility, industry consolidation, global trade, consumer awareness and weather and climate, he said.
The Grow Wisconsin Dairy program - also known as the 30x20 program - which seeks to help state dairy farms produce 30 billion pounds of milk by 2020, works with the Farm Center at DATCP to help farmers with a variety of programs.
There is the herd-based diagnostics program, which sends out veterinarians to help farmers look at their herd as a whole rather than dealing with individual cows as their regular practitioner would do.
There are programs at DATCP, run by Laura Paine, that help spur development in the grass-based and organic sector of dairy farming.
The 30x20 program also offers grants of $5,000 or less that can help farmers hire consultants like engineers to help them deal with a certain aspect of development on their farms.
Grosse said the department's dairy development programs also include "profit teams" that can help farmers make milk quality improvements and with herd health protocols or things like employee relations, safety or business planning.
"Five thousand dollars doesn't make or break a project but it may be enough to help somebody who's on the fence," said Grosse. "It might be what's needed to get the project off the ground."
For help from the department's dairy team, call 1-855-WI Dairy (855-943-2479) or check the website www.Grow