Dairy farming – still a challenging industry

John Oncken
Having a lot of cows creates challenges, from feeding, to health, to milking.

Yes, there are fewer farms and farmers today than there were 50 years ago or last year. No, bigger farms don't force small farmers out of business. Technology allowing so much more to be done in less time by fewer people is one likely suspect.

The other major factor in the move to bigger – but fewer – dairy farms is the people who own and operate the dairies. It was in the early 70's when I talked with a young Californian dairyman milking 750 cows. He classified himself as having a moderate size herd for his area, the Chino Valley, then the most concentrated dairy area in the country but the biggest herd I'd ever seen.

Will the youngsters want to farm? Will there be room on the family farm?

A shock

His first words were: "I don't know if I want to talk to any more Wisconsin dairy people. I've about had my fill of hearing about the trials and tribulations of you folks." In a bit of a shock – after all,Wisconsin was (at the time) firmly entrenched as the dairy production state – I asked him what was bothering him.

"Well," he continued, "I meet with your dairy producers at Holstein meetings and always hear how they work so hard. How they get up so early, milk the cows, do the chores, clean barns, go out to the field and maybe bale hay, spray the corn, fix a fence, miss dinner, continue field work, come back for chores and milking, grab supper, go out in the field again and finally get to bed at midnight. I've never understood why you do things that way." I surely did not have a fast answer except to mumble something to the effect of that's how Midwest dairy farmers did things.

The Leedle family, from left: Tom, Jennifer and Jason. They chose to expand their Lake Geneva dairy but not hire employees. Instead, they added eight robots that milk 480 cows.

Managing, not milking

"Yes!" the Californian exclaimed. "Meanwhile I'm spending my time managing this dairy herd. I don't do any field work, I don't even milk the cows – I have employees to do that. We're business managers, that's why even if you work hard, California is going to be the future dairy area and Wisconsin is going to sink out of sight in the dairy business."

Pretty strong words, I thought then (as I wrote in a column from September 1994, some  26 years ago) and have never forgotten. Yes, California surpassed Wisconsin in milk production in 1993 and still holds a big lead, but with only about 1,300 dairy herds – most all with over 1,000 cows. 

Precision farming works on both large and small farms if you work at it.

Not fallen out of sight

No, Wisconsin milk production has not fallen out of sight, but the makeup of the Wisconsin dairy system has changed considerably. In the early 70's there were few, if any, 750-cow dairies in Wisconsin, although there had been a few in years gone by. But that changed as Wisconsin dairy producers began attending the World Ag Expo in Tulare, where they talked with California dairy farmers and visited big dairies. And they learned.

You have to be big to afford big equipment, and you need big equipment if the farm is expanded.

A few learned fast

Most Wisconsin dairy families were happy with their small family farms and were not interested in getting bigger. Others saw the possibilities of growing their herds and bringing sons and daughters into the dairy business, building a business with less physical labor and more management. They learned and expanded fast. The 1990s saw the phrase "mega dairy" come into play as big, but still family-owned, dairy farms that were appearing on the scene. The secret was that they didn't need to milk – rather, they learned to manage others. 

I'm not sure when the first modern mega dairy was built in Wisconsin, but I do know that the Green family was milking over 900 cows in the 1930s and 40's at their Brook Hill farm in Waukesha County. I was also aware of the Kippley brothers in Waunakee, who at one time had a huge dairy herd, but I sort of forgot it. Larry Kippley gave some history.

Blue Star Dairy expanded to three different dairies years ago as Will Meinholz included sons Walter, Louie and Art in the operation. Now Louie’s three sons are very involved in the family partnership and have added another dairy in Lodi.

"My dad Robert and his brother, Roger, were milking 2,000 cows just down the road from the Gavilon grain facility on Highway K between Waunakee and Middleton. The Kippley Brothers herd operated from 1975 to 1984 – cows were in stanchions. There were many Hispanic families working there and cows were milked around the clock.

"In 1984 the big dairy failed financially and my dad died," Larry said. "We were farming thousands of acres at the time – and remember, this was the 1980s and the era of the farm crisis. And, in contrast to what many folks might think, the big operation never entered bankruptcy."

One of the first larger dairy herds in Wisconsin's modern era was the 800 or so cow dairy of John and Georgine Schottler in St. Croix County, who had moved from Minnesota in the late 80's. When I visited them decades ago in the early 90's, I was surprised to see that many cows. "We were quiet," John explained. While John and his family appeared at fairs and ag events nationwide with their famed "Milk Buds," an eight-pony hitch, few knew they were also progressive dairy farmers.

Many barns like this stand empty after someone calls it quits.

The first mega dairy open house I attended was at Spring Grove Dairy, south of Brodhead, in August 1999 with another 4,000 people – and not all were happy with such a big operation. Interestingly, this dairy is still family-owned by brothers Cornell (who milks in California) and George Kasbergen (now in Illinois). 

Today, there are about 400 concentrated animal feeding operation dairies (over 700 cows) in our state, and most every one is a family-owned corporation. Yes, there are still lots of the traditional small family dairies among our 7,079 herds (as of July 1, 2020), but their numbers are decreasing by the year.

California leads in milk production, but Wisconsin makes more cheese.

Now what? 

Small farms still struggle, still looking for a program to keep them in business. Other families expand from small to big to provide for sons and daughters wanting to join the business and maintain a viable dairy. No, the major drop in dairy farm numbers was never about forcing anyone out of business. It's a combination of technology and decisions made by the farmers themselves.

Next week, a look at the future of Wisconsin dairying through very dirty glasses. 

Part of the three-generation Statz family, which milks a lot of cows near Sun Prairie.
Milking parlors are a must on mega dairies – employee shortage is becoming a challenge.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at