Wisconsin's decisive shift towards the dairy cow

Julie Grace

Wisconsin's popular identity owes quite a bit to cows, their milk and culinary staples like cheese and ice cream. But how did the dairy industry influence the state's culture more broadly, in terms of agricultural and environmental values?

Wisconsin's identity owes quite a bit to cows.

In Wisconsin's early years, farmers worked the soil directly, cultivating enough wheat that the state was the second biggest producer on the eve of the Civil War. But the work of early dairy farmers was inherently different, as they cared for living creatures.

The responsibilities associated with raising animals is the very reason that led to the dairy industry's success, asserted author Ed Janus in his 2011 book Creating Dairyland: How Cows Made Wisconsin. In other words, the success of a dairy farm was and remains dependent on how cows are treated.

He discussed this factor and others that contributed to the state's contemporary dairy industry in an August 17, 2011 lecture recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

"One of the things that the dairy leaders were selling was contentment," Janus said. "They were trying to get farmers…to sell the cow as a way of bringing a sort of a spiritual aspect to life."

Once Wisconsin farmers started embracing dairy in the late 19th century, they started seeing both improvements to their lives, said Janus. The nature of the dairy industry required farmers to care for their animals, but it also allowed for scientific measurement to determine how and why specific cows were healthy, and therefore producing well.

Dairy farmers measured the productivity of each cow using the Babcock test, increasing control over their success, said Janus. In turn, this control empowered farmers to improve their own lives and well-being.

"I like to say that this is a revolution in rural history," said Janus…"The dairy movement sought by making farmers prosperous to usher them into the middle-class."

The invention of the silo was transformational in the early dairy industry, because they allowed for cows to be fed and consequently produce milk year round, instead of only during the spring, summer and fall. Silos extended cows feeding and production period through the winter, and created the year round cycle of the dairy industry.

Due to the steady flow of milk, the cheese industry gained a stronghold in the state.

"Having a cheese industry made all the difference. It started putting money in farmers’ pockets, making them convert completely to dairying," Janus said.

In the early days of the state's dairy industry during the late nineteenth century, farmers began taking on a larger moral responsibility, too – a way of thinking that many farmers continue to embody.

"Our farmers in Wisconsin became dedicated to providing protein to the world. So, I like to say that caring became the new morality for farmers," Janus said, noting that many people around the world have struggled to feed themselves.

When Wisconsin farmers began taking on this larger mission, advocates sought to regulate the dairy industry out of health and safety concerns for milk's consumers. At the same time, leaders in the Progressive movement looked to improve the lives of those producing food. To them, the rhythms of dairy farming did just that.

"A comfortable cow was good for business, a comfortable cow was good for your soul," he said.