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A picture of farming from 2010

Wisconsin State Farmer
Brown County has 1,000 farms of varying sizes, including smaller operations with traditional red barns.

As we enter a new decade, the Wisconsin State Farmer asked agriculture professionals to look back a decade at what farming was like in 2010. We picked the brains of Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden and Professor Emeritus of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, University of Wisconsin-Madison Bob Cropp about 10 things from farming in 2010. Here are their answers. 

1. A lot has been said lately about the size of farms. What was the average size of farms 10 years ago? Were there any trends toward large farms at that time? 

Von Ruden: In 2010 the average size dairy farm was around 100 cows, today that number is close to 170. We continue to see the trend towards larger farms in the dairy, swine, and crop sectors. Since the early part of the 2000’s we have seen an increase in the number of beef herds due to dairy farms closing their dairy operations and bringing beef animals onto the farm. Since 2010 we have seen an increased number of farms move into the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sector. The beef and CSA sectors have helped to maintain a consistent number of total farms in Wisconsin.

Cropp: The average size Wisconsin farm in 2010 was 200.8 acres. In 2018 it was 221 acres. There are a number of part-time and hobby farmers on rather small farms. The size doesn’t increase very fast because most farms are sold as is, that is not sold to another farm to expand the farm size. Some farmers are operating more than one farm.

If you look at Wisconsin dairy farms, in 2010 the average herd size was 99.3 cows. In 2018 the average herd size was 149.9 cows. The trend here is upward as small dairy farms exit, others modernize by going from stantion or tie stall barns to free stalls and milking parlors which involves larger herds. Within the past 10 or 15 years we have seen a number of rather large dairy herds—1,000 cows to 2,500 cows and one with 8,000 cows.

Darin Von Ruden

2. On average, what was the quality of life like on farms 10 years ago? 

Von Ruden: The quality of life on farms in 2010 was ok. Farm income was on the rise which was needed as we were still struggling from the financial crisis of 07-08. The ethanol industry was expanding and dairy was finding new markets.

Cropp: I am not sure the quality of life has changed that much other than grain farmers and dairy farmers have suffered from low prices the past 4 years. Corn averaged $3.30 10 years ago and is now about $3.80, but the cost of production has increased since 2010. Soybeans were $11.70 10 years ago and today about $8.60.

Life on a dairy farm has been tough. 10 years ago dairy farmers were coming out of low milk prices not seen since the depression. The average milk price was $18.90 in 2018 and fell to $13.10 in 2009, But was recovering in 2010 to $16.10. But, dairy farmers have suffered much more than 2009. The average milk price was $24.50 in 2014 and fell to $17.80 in 2015, $16.20 in 2016, $16.80 in 2017, $16.50 in 2018 and in 2019 it was $16.20 and has improved to $20.50 in October and will average about $18.70 for 2019. But, 4 and ½ years of very low milk prices have placed a lot of financial stress on dairy farmers. May have left the industry.

Of course new technology—computers, milking parlors, robots, tractors, combines and etc. continue to improve and making farming easier.

3. What role did technology play in agriculture 10 years ago? How have changes helped/hindered the industry? 

Von Ruden: Technology was having a positive impact on agriculture from robots in the dairy industry to precision planting equipment and drones in the cropping sector. These technologies continue to advance and become more affordable for farmers. One issue farmers face today because of this advancement in technology is who owns the data collected and will they be able to make repairs on their own.

Bob Cropp

Cropp: Most of the technology we have today exited 10 years ago—computers, milking parlors, no till tillage equipment, robot milking, but it keeps getting better. It has enabled dairy farmers to manage larger dairy herds—1,000 plus cow dairies would not be possible to manage effectively without computers that keep close track of each individual cow for example. Modern machinery has allowed no tillage and improved precision crop farming and reduce costs.

4. What role did trade play in agriculture in 2010? 

Von Ruden: Trade was becoming more important to agriculture as we were realizing increased yields and we were experiencing overproduction in commodity agriculture. 

Cropp: Trade was important for corn and soybeans as well as hogs, cattle and milk. Close to 30% of the corn exported, about 45% of the soybeans, 12% of the beef, 26% of the hogs and in 2009 9.3% of milk production was exported compared to 7.6% back in 2004 and in 2010 it reached a record of 12.8%. this compares to 15.8% in 2018 and 14.2% through September of this year.

5. What was the situation with farm labor in 2010? 

Von Ruden: In 2010 farm labor was beginning to become an issue as farm size continues to expand and the economy is turning around it is becoming harder to find good help. Immigrant laborers are becoming more of political issue which is forcing dairy and vegetable production into difficult situation. We still see this problem today.

Cropp: Farm labor was an issue for larger dairy farms. It was difficult finding domestic workers who wanted to milk cows. Some farms where hiring immigrants to milk cows.

Mega dairies are increasingly facing labor challenges.

6. What are some examples of prices farmers saw 10 years ago for products they produced? 

Von Ruden: Dairy farmers were receiving between $12 and $13 per hundredweight, corn farmers were receiving $3 per bushel, soybeans were in the $11 range, hog prices were in $45-50 range, and beef prices were in the mid $90’s.

Cropp: In 2010 corn was $3.30 per bushel, soybeans $11.70 per bushel, alfalfa hay $114 per ton, milk $16.10 per hundredweight, steers $95.80 per 100 pounds, slaughtered cull cows $53.98 per 100 pounds, hogs $54 per 100 pounds.

7. What are some examples of prices farmers paid for equipment and costs they incurred in 2010? 

Von Ruden: New 100 horsepower tractors were $75-100 thousand, fertilizer prices were up over $300 per ton, seed corn was $200 plus per bag and soybeans were in the $70 per bag range. A box of mastitis tubes was $40, farm labor was $10-12.

Cropp: I really don’t have information on this. It is hard to come up with simply because the equipment keeps getting bigger so hard to compare. An implement dealer can shed lihjt on this.

8. What were farmland values like in 2010? 

Von Ruden: Farmland values held during the financial crisis of 07-08 and were increasing. The largest jump in land prices were in the middle of the decade after two years of good commodity prices.

Cropp: In 2010 there were 1,425 land sales for land that was staying in agricultural production and not for development like housing. The total acres sold was 163,691. The average sales price was $3,861 per acre. But, it varied a lot. The lowest was in Wood County for 20 sales and 1,138 acres for an average of $2,719 per acre. The highest was in Waukesha County for 1 sale for 32 acres for $14,800 per acre.

9. A decade ago, did farmers own or rent most of their land and equipment?  

Von Ruden: In 2010 most farmers owned most of their land but rental options were starting to become more relevant. Today we see more and more acres under rental agreements.

Cropp: For dairy farmers the vast majority was owned. For crop farmers many owned some land but rented additional acres.

Ag economic experts predict a better year for farmers milk price-wise in 2020.

10. Finally, if you could have known then (2010) what you know now (2020), what would you have done differently, if anything? 

Von Ruden: If we only had a crystal ball, I think we would have looked at growth management programs to help keep supply and demand in check. We need to see a more diverse make up of agriculture which should include more farms, better use of and protection of our most precious natural resource WATER. 

Cropp: For dairy farmers 2020 will be a better year with milk prices averaging perhaps more than $1.00 per hundredweight higher than 2019. Milk prices can change with rather small changes in milk production, domestic sales and dairy exports. After 4 ½ years of low milk prices along with some forage quality problems that stem from the very wet years in 2019 milk production is not expect to surge in 2020. The economy continues to growth perhaps at a little lower pace but wages are higher and unemployment low which should mean a growth in domestic dairy product sales, particularly cheese, and dairy exports could be higher due to the fact that milk production is showing on modest growth in the major dairy exports—EU, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina which opens up opportunities for U.S. dairy exports.

There is a concern what next year will bring for crop farmers. The very wet summer and fall has saturated the soil which could mean very wet soil coming next spring and delaying again late planting. As of now USDA is forecasting some improvement in corn and soybean prices. Corn at$3.85 per bushel compared to $3.61 this year and soybeans at $9.00 compared to $8.48 this year.