The downward spiral continues

John Oncken

Latest figures show there are 9,494 dairy farms in Wisconsin, a far cry from the numbers posted 20, 10 or even five years ago.  Every year the number of dairy farms in America’s Dairyland decreases by 400 (or so), and we wonder how low it will go.

I’d guess it’s not a question of how many dairy herds leave the scene but how fast.

I attended a small dairy herd dispersal last week on a farm near Argyle. A total of 48 dairy animals of which about 19 were currently milking, and farm operator Larry Moen said he could not find a dairy processor to pick up his small amount  of milk.

For many decades, the National Farmers Organization had been picking up and marketing the farm milk, but they said he didn’t have enough milk for them to come down the driveway to pick it up.

“Most of my cows are dry right now,” Moen said. “I don’t really blame them (the truckers); it’s a business.”

Moen said he had sold his farm equipment last spring, rented the land to a neighbor and was buying feed for the herd.  That farm debt, along with the low milk price, prompted him to sell the herd and quit farming. The 220-acre farm (130 tillable acres) that is owned by Larry, his brother, sister and mother has been in the family for “almost a 100 years.”

The future?  “We hope to rent the farm, and I’ll have to get a job, doing what, I don’t know, maybe at WalMart,” Moen said with a wry smile.

One less dairy

So, the number of Wisconsin dairy farms went down by one last Friday, but its loss will have almost no impact on the state’s milk production.

The herd dispersal was conducted by B&M  Auctions of Browntown owned by Tom Bidlingmaier and his son Cory. Over the last couple of months, the father/son team said they had conducted four other dairy sales — all relatively small dairy farms of a hundred or so cows and all with the current dairy economics as a factor in the decision to quit milking.

Many reasons

Note: not all farm dairy dispersals are prompted by immediate or pressing financial stress. There are a number of major reasons to sell the cows.

  • + Perhaps the family is near, maybe five years away, retirement and decides to get out a bit earlier in order to forgo borrowing money and losing equity.
  • Maybe there are no family succession plans and the family sees little or no long-term future in milking cows; so rather than to continue losing money milking cows, they leave dairying for raising beef or cash cropping.
  • A too-small operation but being unwilling or unable to add cow numbers.
  • They are tired. Milking cows is twice a day (or more), seven days a week, 365 days a year with not a miss.
  • Any one of several or dozens of other reasons — from illness to family feuds to an eager buyer with cash in hand. 

Bigger, more, better

What does the seemingly never-ending exit of dairy farms mean to Wisconsin’s dairy economy and future? It probably doesn’t mean less milk production as cow numbers will remain about the same as existing herds get bigger and cows give more milk and as feeding, breeding, equipment and management get ever better.

Consider:in the 50 years of World Dairy Expo, now with over 800 commercial exhibitors (and always expanding), you’ll not find even one offering goods or services that work slower, are less efficient or require more work.  Efficiency, labor saving, easier, faster and better are the watchwords, and they won’t change.

20 years from now?

How many dairy herds will there be in Wisconsin 20 years from now?

Who knows, but I remember Dennis Dugan making a speech at World Dairy Expo many years ago, in which he said the US.. would need only 5,000 dairy herds milking 5,000 cows each. That was before there were few, if any, herds that big anywhere.

I also remember the audience sort of scoffed at Dugan’s comments, suggesting that while there were big dairy herds like Dugan’s in Arizona and those few “nuts” in California with big herds, they’d never make it long term. After all, cows needed individual attention, and you couldn’t make such big herds work in Wisconsin.

Check that today: Wisconsin is the home of several hundred 500-plus cow herds, lots of 1,000-cow herds and a few 5,000-plus cow operations. And in spite of the milk price disasters of 2009, 2013 and now, it’s not the big (mega) dairies getting out of dairying; it’s the small, mom- and dad-managed and worked operations that are "on the edge.”

California produces some 3.4 billion pounds of milk annually, while Wisconsin cows make 2.6 billion pounds. However, California produces this milk on 1,465 dairy farms averaging 1,200 cows each, while Wisconsin has 9,494 dairy farms averaging 135 cows in size. If Wisconsin herds were 1,200 cows each, as in California, that would mean a total of just 1,065 dairy herds needed in our state.

If we revisit Dugan’s projections of some years ago, the nation’s current 9.33 million cows in 43,584 dairy herds averaging 235 cows in size could be handled on 1,866, 5,000-cow dairies; 3,100 3,000-cow dairies; or 9,330 1,000-cow operations.

Scary? Yes, but we’ll always have small dairies, won’t we?  After all, not everyone (maybe most) who wants to milk cows wants to be “big,”  nor do they want to manage employees or invest many millions of dollars in buildings and equipment.

Advances in dairy equipment, especially robotic milking, enables small-sized dairies to milk cows in increments of  60 cows per robot without major labor outlays. True, you do need a specially designed barn, and robotic milking is not cheap, but it allows a smaller dairy operation to exist. My  guess: we’ll see smaller dairies with robotic milking owned by farmers with outside jobs.

What about the registered dairy breeder who has for decades been smaller in size but depended on cattle sales as a major income source in addition to milk sales? From the beginning of cattle breeding, the purebred breeder has sold bulls and heifers from their good-looking, high-producing cows to other farmers who wanted to improve their herd.

The challenge was that results varied widely because not all offspring looked or milked as well as that great show cow or bull.

Artificial insemination has long proven bulls by comparing offspring that were born, raised and milked over a five-year period. Now genomic DNA  testing can give almost immediate results of the genetic value of the young calf or heifer.  As several top Holstein breeders told me recently, “Today, we're showing cattle as a fun hobby, not for genetic improvement; genomics have changed the scene.”

Organic dairying? Maybe, but there is already a 15,000-cow organic dairy in Texas.

As dairy farm numbers fall, the remaining larger dairies' needs changed and their suppliers also changed — a subject for another time.

For now, the only  "for sure" is that there will be fewer dairy farms tomorrow, next month and next year than today, thereby continuing an eighty-year trend.  We also know there are fewer farm equipment  dealers now than 20 years ago, milking parlors that will milk 12, 50 or 100 cows in the time it took us to milk two cows with milk of much better quality and new products, services and programs we couldn’t envision even 10 years ago.

Above all, we know that change in dairying is certain, but good or bad, who knows.? Like is often said, “it depends.”

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at