Many ideas, where’s the action?

John Oncken

A crowd of 200 dairy-involved attendees participated in the “Dairy Summit” hosted by the University of Wisconsin held at the Alliant Energy Center June 19, 2017. A host of speakers described everything from research to milk production, and dairy marketing to the future of dairying in Wisconsin.

UW President Ray Cross said the aim of the summit was to bring industry leaders together with world-renowned UW researchers in an effort to identify top priorities for Wisconsin’s dairy industry in moving forward.

200 attendees from the dairy industry.

“The dairy industry is integral to Wisconsin’s economy,“ Cross says. “The UW System is dedicated to supporting and strengthening partnerships between researchers, farmers, producers, and legislators. The innovative research conducted at UW System campuses aims to help farmers and producers as they look for opportunities to stay on the cutting edge of the dairy industry,” said President Cross.

A real future

Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel opened the event by saying: “it is appropriate that the first Wisconsin Idea Summit is on dairy.

In the 1950’s, Wisconsin had about 143,000 dairy farms, which was about 4% of the nation’s total. Today, there are about 9,200 dairy farms in the Badger state, which is more than 20% of the nation’s total.

The changes in dairy are not only happening in Wisconsin; this is a national phenomenon. Wisconsin continues to strengthen its leadership in dairy. Dairy is a vital and viable industry in Wisconsin with a real future and an international reputation.

“In April, we received a wakeup call about how the dairy industry has been changing over time... we now pay attention to weather patterns in New Zealand, dairy policy in the European Union, pricing structures in Canada and the economy in China," Brancel said. "The world marketplace directly impacts the Wisconsin dairy industry. Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland. We now have the opportunity to be the World’s Dairyland. It is our time to take that challenge."

UW-Madison CALS Dean Kate VandenBosch moderated the “Addressing Challenges” panel.

Keynote speaker Mark Stephenson, UW Director of Dairy Policy Analysis told of changes in the dairy industry that are impacting dairying; “U.S. shifts in milk production; involvement in the export market and increasing milk production.”

It’s not about more milk

John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association (WCMA) said that the answer to dairy's current dilemma isn’t about producing more milk, it’s better marketing, determining what people want and making it for them, packaging it the right way and distributing it how they want.”

He offered a list of suggestions that ranged from: “Better marketing, to removal of federal pricing that limits the development of new products to developing new cheese styles and names to solving the manure issue by turning it into an asset for the industry. and to keep making the best (dairy products) here in Wisconsin.”

Put on brakes

Sarah Lloyd, special projects coordinator for the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a dairy farmer, said one of the problems is that Wisconsin has been in “full throttle agriculture” in recent years with no brakes on production.

Dairy farmer Mitch Breunig asks; “What can we do to increase milk consumption?”

Lloyd said in a 2016 WFU survey of dairy farmers, there was support for inventory management — not by the government but by dairy farmers themselves. She said Wisconsin could produce the amount of milk it does now with 9,000 farms with 100 cows each or 250 farms that average 5,000 cows. “The WFU has a vision that we maintain what we have historically had here in Wisconsin,” she said.

Innovation and support

Dean Sommer, with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, said his organization's mission is to support dairy farmers and processors by: selling more milk, developing innovative processes and products, climbing the value chain of dairy products and utilizing all of milk’s components for maximum value.”

He pointed out that only a few cheese processors have pilot plants – places to do research and develop new products. That’s what the CDR helps with — developing processes, troubleshooting and helping develop new specialty cheeses.

(Comment - Innovation is key. Look at Hamdi Ulukaya who bought a defunct cheese plant in New York and turned it into the base for his now billion dollar Chobani empire. It can be done.)

The Center for Dairy Research is housed at the UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall.

More research

John Lucey, director of the CDR, emphasized there is a need for increased dairy food research to keep up with international competitors. Lucey also saw future opportunities for dairying: increased exports with high protein powders and shelf stable beverages; higher production of value-added cheeses, focus on nutritional products, high protein snacks and enhanced beverages.

In order to aid cheesemakers, the CDR conducts short course training sessions and individual company training both in the facility and on line. He also pointed out that a $34 million renovation/expansion (beginning in 2018) of Babcock Hall will aid research and training efforts.

Must be profitable

To ensure a vibrant dairy industry in Wisconsin farms must be profitable, he said, and produce high quality milk needed for dairy processing and be responsive to consumer concerns. At the processor level, dairy plants must produce innovative products meeting consumers’ desires and they must be the safest, highest quality products.

“Processors must find ways to exploit new markets and new consumers. The university,” says Lucey, “needs to provide innovation and technical support as well as industry training and top-level graduates.”

Jen Walsh of WMMB spoke of consumer wants and changes.

Lucey sees a great future for dairying with 9 billion people and 60 percent more food estimated to be needed by 2050 and if cheese consumption increases at its current rate many million of pounds of milk will be needed.

Teaching and research

Kent Weigel, Chair of the UW-Madison Dairy Science Department and Kevin Bernhardt, Professor of Ag Business at UW-Plattevile told of their departments efforts in outreach, teaching and research aimed at: improving dairy farm operations, ensuring animal health, optimizing land and water use and enriching human health and nutrition. At the same time they must attract the best talent to stimulate bold discoveries to lead the dairy industry into the future.

Mitch Breunig, Sauk City dairyman said “producers and processors must work together to produce the kind of milk consumers want. “How do we get people to drink more milk? Research can/must tell us.”


Other speakers discussed where the dairy industry is now, and where they would like it to go in the future. UW System President Ray Cross summarized by saying he needs specifics. “I’m not sure we’re listening to each other very well, what needs to be researched and why? What’s most important?"

(My comment - nothing said at the Summit hasn’t been said before, hundreds of times — so I wonder why president Cross is confused about the specifics of new products, exports, consumer wants and dairy profitability needs and challenges?)

At meeting end, I asked three dairy farmers (300, 800 and 1200 cows) who were there and who I knew, what they got out of the day-long summit?

Their answers were exactly the same; “I guess I’ve got to get more efficient to stay in business,” was their identical answer.

Hasn’t it always been thus?

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at