21 years later and still no answer for dairying

John Oncken
Young ambitious families are still embarking on dairy farming careers.

On Jan. 1, 2020, the number of licensed dairy farms in Wisconsin stood at 7,292 as compared to 8,110 a year ago. This is a decline of 818 in just one year. In the last decade the state lost 5,637 dairies, a decrease of 44%. Wow!

What a loss of dairy farm numbers. What can be done? But — it’s happened before. In April 1999, I wrote a column about the same issue. Here are my thoughts from April  8, 1999, just over 21 years ago.  

April 1999, two decades ago

“On Tuesday a front-page story in many newspapers proclaimed that, according to a national study, Wisconsin has lost 7,000 dairy farms in the past six years — dropping from 30,000 in 1993 to 23,000 in 1998 — more than three a day. This big revelation was proclaimed — in breathless tomes — as the lead news story on some radio stations all day long.

What a shock! What a surprise! “To whom,” I ask, “and why?”

My coffee-stained copy of the 1978 Wisconsin Dairy Facts and the most recent (1998) issue of the same publication list the number of dairy herds in Wisconsin since such numbers have been recorded — so the data surely was available. (And, I’ve cited it herein many times.) 

The cows are often sold at auction but continue milking in a new barn.

Looking back

Thirty years ago in 1968, there were 71,000 dairy farms in our state, in 1998 there were 23,000. That’s a drop of 48,000 in 30 years, 1,600 per year, 4.3 herds per day. It appears that the current loss of only three herds per day now is an improvement!

The story — based on a National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) study — further suggested that “a tougher, harsher business environment was blamed for many of the losses” a NMPF spokesman explained.

‘Tougher, harsher business environment?’ Wait a moment — is moving from an old wooden stanchion barn with small narrow dairy stalls, a silo you had to climb daily, a hay baler from which you had to lift each and every bale and years without a vacation away from milking cows twice a day with a bucket style milker to a modern dairy operation truly a tougher, harsher business environment?

Many dairy producers consider it spending money to get out of slavery and into the modern world, to get the kids to college and take vacations and have a business that will support a family in a civilized manner. To do so, fathers and sons combined their small farms to make one bigger farm where one set of labor-saving machinery replaced  several sets of outdated, obsolete, labor intensive junk.  

“Many farms that couldn't compete ended up as (failed) farm statistics,” the NMPF said.

Can’t compete?

Wait just a minute — what do they mean by “couldn’t compete?” I have yet to meet a farmer who quit farming because they couldn’t “compete” with other farmers. I do know hundreds — maybe thousands — who left farming because they wanted to retire and fortunately had a neighbor willing to offer the means (money) to make retirement possible.

A small, family dairy can still survive with a specialty enterprise such as dairy genetics and top management.

Farmers do leave farming because they can’t compete, but chances are that the competition is from real estate companies, industrial development committees, city zoning experts, governments and road builders and rich city folks —all who will pay tons of money for a farmers' land — then complain about a 100-year-old farm next door because the manure smells up that fine new $500,000 country estate or builds a new highway that cuts the farm into unfarmable pieces.  

‘End up as (failed) farm statistics?’ Of course, a few dairy farmers do fail — just like electricians, plumbers, lawyers, writers, computer experts and even doctors. There are many reasons for financial failure — divorce, illness, family fights, weather and — being inept at what one does. Pure and simple — most dairy farms absolutely do not fail — but those 48,000 dairy farm units that disappeared from the records over 30 years did go somewhere. 

Expanded, not failed

Just because two or three brothers built a new dairy facility and closed three ancient ones doesn’t mean anyone failed! That’s an insult to all those progressive farmers who studied, planned, invested and now operate topnotch dairy operations. Chances are that new modern facility is a major success in terms of a better lifestyle and financial situation. Of course, there are the naysayers who are forever predicting that the multi-family, ultramodern dairy operation with hundreds of cows is ‘sure to go broke.’ 

Many sons and daughters of dairy farmers went to college and became educators, industry leaders or professionals. They chose not to farm and eventually the “home place” was sold to a neighbor, a new farm family or perhaps to a nearby city for development. Another notch in the “farm loss” data. 

Adding new technology can be expensive.

Everything changed

Most every dairy cow milker knows you can milk 300 cows today in the time it took the farmer to milk 60 cows back in 1968. Dairy farming today is being built on technology, business plans and lifestyle decisions. Nevertheless, it’s not an easy life — you still work hard and long; it’s money intensive — like many businesses; not everyone is good at it; nature still calls the shots; guarantees of success are few and far between and in spite of the best of intentions, there are failures.

It hurts me to see those empty barns and farmhouses I’ve visited and drank coffee in and in which I talked with farmer friends, now long gone. 

What and who?

Those headlines are always scary but before we declare war on someone or something, tell me, what is the right number of dairy farms we should have in Wisconsin and who should be running them? I and an entire industry would really like to know.

Same challenges

It’s now 21 years later with another 23,000 fewer dairies and the same challenges face dairying, the same questions are being asked and as then, the answers are still unknown. The door is open for invention and innovation and the time is right.

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