Wisconsin has fewer dairy farms. So how are they producing more milk?

Hope Kirwan
Wisconsin Public Radio
Cows being milked on a rotary milking parlor at Ebert Enterprises in Kewaunee County. Dairy experts say farms are getting bigger, better at caring for cows so they produce more milk.

The number of dairy farms in Wisconsin continues to decline every year. The state lost 360 dairy herds, or about 5 percent, in 2021, ending the year with 6,572 licensed producers.

But Wisconsin dairy farmers also produced more milk in 2021 than ever before. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin’s total milk production was 31.7 billion pounds of milk last year. That surpassed the previous record set in 2020 by about 3 percent and continued a 16-year streak of annual production increases.

While the steady growth in milk production might seem counterintuitive given the decline in dairy farms, experts said it represents a number of trends driving the future of dairy.

Dairy farms are getting bigger

The consolidation of farms seen across agriculture is a big part of why the state has fewer licensed dairy producers, according to Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"In many cases when farms sell out, most of their cows may go to other dairy farms. And so the remaining farms have gotten a little bit larger," Stephenson said.

Stephenson said in 2005, the average herd size in Wisconsin was 82 cows per farm, and in 2020, that average climbed to 177 cows per farm. In other words, the average more than doubled over 15 years.

Mark Stephenson

He said growth among the largest farms in the state is the biggest contributor to Wisconsin’s overall production increase.

But herds are trending bigger across the dairy industry, Stephenson said, and that means there are far fewer that fall into the smallest categories.

"In many cases, it's because (a farm) kind of graduated from a smaller size category up to the next one."

Wisconsin had 1.27 million milk cows on average throughout 2021, about 1 percent higher than in 2020.

Cows are producing more

Stephenson said the dairy industry has been using breeding for a long time to improve milk production, selecting the best milkers in their herds to produce the next generation.

"Dairy cows have just become genetically superior to be able to consume food like hay and corn silage … and turn that into milk. And our highest producing dairy cows are really at an astounding level — much, much above the average," Stephenson said.

Milk production per cow reached a record high in 2021 at 24,884 pounds, almost 2 percent higher than the previous year.

Tera Montgomery, dairy and animal science professor at UW-Platteville, said farmers are also getting better at caring for animals that produce more milk as a result.

Tera Montgomery, dairy and animal science professor at UW-Platteville, said farmers are also getting better at caring for animals that produce more milk as a result.

"She's not just a production unit. She's an animal, and we’ve got to care for her," Montgomery said. "We want to take a look at what are we doing from a management perspective that allows these amazing animals to show us what they're capable of."

Just like an athlete, what cows eat makes a difference in their performance. Montgomery said producers have learned to better balance the sweet stuff like corn, which she said is like candy for cows, with healthy fiber like hay.

This article was republished with permission from Wisconsin Public Radio