Too much milk, lots of change

John Oncken

Wisconsin dairy cows continue to produce milk at a rapid pace producing more milk during September than during the same month a year ago. According to the USDA's monthly milk production report, state output totaled 2.51 billion pounds last month, up 2.0 percent from September 2017. The average number of milk cows on Wisconsin farms for the month was 1.27 million head, down 1,000 from last month and 4,000 head less than last year. 

Nationally, 16.4 billion pounds of milk was produced in September in the 23 major dairy states, which was 1.5 percent more than in September 2017.

Todays cows eat more and better than in granddad’s day.

Dairying today

Those two paragraphs, first released a couple of days ago, along with the continuing stories of fading fluid milk consumption across the country, pretty much tell the story of dairying today.

Not good!  Wisconsin and the nations dairy producers are too good at doing what they do best — producing milk. So good in fact that the prices they receive for that milk are too low to make a profit, meaning they are cutting production expenses in every way possible. 

Getting out

Many Wisconsin dairy producers have taken the only move they see as logical by selling their cows and getting out of the cow milking business. Reports are that near 500 dairy farms have hung up their milking equipment and sold their cows since the end of 2017. That doesn’t mean the cows aren’t still milking, chances are they just moved to another herd and are still in a milking lineup. 

The additions to many barns denote the changes made over the years.

Don’t for a moment think that’s happening only in Wisconsin: Millions of pounds of unprocessed milk have been dumped in New England and California and maybe elsewhere. When the milk can’t be processed into a consumer product that will be bought, what do you do with it?

What to do?

Invent new dairy products maybe — but that’s not easy and takes time. Give it away? Easier said than done. Sell it overseas to countries short of food with growing populations? Maybe, if the politics and nationalism issues can be overcome. 

As of now, the milk keeps flowing and dairy producers are challenged to stay in business.

Wheat to milk

Until the late 1800s, Wisconsin was a wheat state, then disease caused low yields and the state moved to another endeavor: dairying. Hard working Wisconsin farmers and the ready supply of water and forages and the movement to cheesemaking moved Wisconsin to become the leading dairy state. In 1939, “America’s Dairyland” began appearing on auto license plates where it remains.

California led the way

In 1993, California became the leading dairy state in milk production. Wisconsin dairy producers watched as California dairy herds grew in size and production but were still convinced that dairy herds could not be managed by anyone other than the owners. 

A 5,000 cow dairy being built in Fresno county California in about 2003.

In the 1990s and early 2000s Wisconsin dairy producers began visiting the annual Tulare Farm Equipment Show (later to become the World Ag Expo) and visiting the California mega dairies and learning how California milked cows. They learned that well-trained herd managers and hired employees could milk cows as good (or better) than Wisconsin’s smaller family farms. 

Change came

Dairying changed dramatically in the dairy state as innovative Wisconsin dairy producers expanded their operations first to 100 cows, then to hundreds and then to thousands in the past 20 years. Milk production per cow rose to new heights (now at 23,552 pounds average) as farmers incorporated the new equipment, services and management practices that became available.  

Not too many years ago, cob corn was the norm. It was labor intensive.

Large herds meant a need for hired labor to carry on the business of farming and dairying as modern genetics and cow care became ever more important. Three time a day milking became commonplace and the milk flowed.  Idaho and Michigan became big dairy states with their growth of mega dairies and now rank in the top five dairy states. 

Meanwhile, a wide variety of other beverages such as energy drinks, soft drinks, coffee, and milk substitutes became readily available and popular. The biggest non-milk drinkers are children and teenagers. Nowadays, parents are not pushing their kids to drink a glass or two of milk like they did in the years gone by. {Note — I so well remember my mother saying to me on a daily basis “Now, Johnny, drink your milk, it’s good for you!”  Maybe so, but I always dreamed of having an entire quart of store-bought chocolate milk all to myself.) 

The result? 

Americans, on average, drink 37 percent less milk today than they did in 1970. But, cheese production and consumption has boomed for decades. Americans moved from 17 pounds per capita in 1975 to 38 pounds last year. That takes a lot of milk considering 10 pounds of milk will make about a pound of cheese. Fortunately, for dairy producers the cheese market continues to grow. 

Then there is the export market that a few years ago was considered the salvation to our overproduction woes. Not any more — Canada and Mexico seem to be settled with a new agreement but China (where so many potential consumers live) is still up in the air.  In a recent visit with Bill Endres, a top dairy producer at Waunakee, we got talking about the subject.  “There has been so much discussion about Canada and Mexico lately but China has much more potential, shouldn’t we be putting our export efforts there and get that market?"  

A barn holding about eight cows. A relic from the 1800s.

The future?

What is the future for Wisconsin dairying? Firstly, dairy farmers don’t market directly to consumers, they milk cows to the best of their ability. My guess is that they will continue to do so, always producing more milk than the year before.  

I hear some discussion from farmers about hopes for a supply management program but it’s limited although several large dairy cooperatives have installed production control programs of their own that apparently are working. 

Secondly — the ability of farmers to produce milk is seemingly unlimited and if their milk price goes up, cows will be added. The mega dairies will be around for a long time  — they have the business skills and are the low cost producers. Many of the smaller family dairies will also remain because they are also good managers and they have a spouse working off the farm and love the lifestyle.

I first saw a 1,000 cow dairy herd in California in the mid-70s  in the Chino Valley, there were some 350 herds located there at the time. Today, maybe 60 remain, most moved to the San Joaquin and built better and bigger. But, only about 1,300 herds remain in California and the long term future of dairying in the Golden State is bleak.  

Many of us were a part of Wisconsin dairying in 1993, 25 years ago (30,400 herds, 14,800 milk average). What will Wisconsin dairying look like 25 years from now? Any guess is a good one.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.