Dairy producers have just become too good at producing milk

John Oncken
Farmers attend dairy sales to buy better cows than they have in their herd for more milk.

Two more Wisconsin dairy farm families are getting out of the cow milking business each day according to the latest data. And by year end, there will be about 600 fewer dairy herds in the dairy state than a year ago.

Some will say they’re being forced out by big farms, evil corporate dairies and/or lack of government support to agriculture.

Wrong, dead wrong. Each of the farm families is making a calculated change in lifestyle. For sure, they are tired. Tired of the 24-hour challenges of running a family dairy farm. Tired of milking cows twice a day, every day. Tired of feeding cows, delivering calves and kneeling several times by each cow at each milking. But, they can put up with—and even enjoy the lifestyle if they get paid enough to make a profit, something that has not happened for several years. Why so, one might ask?

Cows milking over 100 pounds per day are not unusual today.

What happened

It’s no secret, just read any dairy magazine, computer newsletter, ag news story, blog or newspaper. It’s the milk—too much of it!  And everyone in the dairy industry is involved:  The universities for researching everything from nutrition to management. Commercial companies for developing, advertising and marketing ever-more efficient labor-saving products. The media (me included) for telling of the successes achieved by ever newer products and services. And the dairy producers for using all the inputs to produce more milk.

Were all the organizations and people wrong in always progressing ahead? No, that’s what people do.

It’s happened before

Look at the grocery industry: My mother’s brothers owned small corner stores until the supermarkets came to Madison and provided what consumers wanted; lots of choices, pushcarts, fast service and big parking lots.

Barns are designed first and foremost for cow comfort.

The medical industry moved from Dr. Shoenbeck, in his office above the drugstore in Stoughton, who did everything from prescribing medicine for the sniffles to delivering babies and even making home visits, to today’s big clinics who have a specialized doctor for every symptom.

Look back, every industry has changed so as to be unrecognizable today to our great grandparents. Is that good or bad? It depends.

I thought modern medicine was great when I had my colon repaired a decade and a half ago. Chances are I wouldn’t be here today if medicine hadn’t progressed as it did.

You name it, everything invented and used today is aimed at doing something better, faster, easier or cheaper (maybe), including producing milk.

All of the dairy breeds produce more milk than ever.

Even mighty GM found themselves producing too many cars and this week announced the closing of five auto plants and cutting 18,000 workers.

Dairy producers worldwide are just too good at producing milk and so far have not been too good at finding homes for all of it. So what to do?

The major and possible solution seems to be in retaining current export markets and finding new markets in rapidly industrializing countries like China; things not easy to do, as we’ve seen.

Dairy farmers historically experienced two or three bad years followed by a year or two of  good (and profitable) prices. This cycle seems to have gotten off track and a sense of gloom now surrounds dairying.

Few answers

So far, answers are few and far between. Yet while milk from cows is being dumped, fake milk from soybeans, almonds, coconut and a raft of other plants is flying off the shelves. Shouldn’t that tell us something? Perhaps a close look at our dairy rules, regulations and traditions. Perhaps homogenized white milk isn’t the king of the hill as a drink, maybe it’s chocolate, strawberry, banana or mint flavored milk.

Who knows? But we should find out.

'Tis the season

Suddenly, many of us realize it’s the Christmas season with December 25th only a couple weeks away and we’re faced with the annual challenge of finding a few Christmas presents.

What to buy for dad? We don’t know his sizes and he already has more clothes than he wears. How about Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary who are both retired and don’t do much but watch TV and read? Or brother Sam and sister Sue, each who live a thousand miles away in Texas and New York.

The round barn just before its demolition.

Here are a couple of suggestions, each of which are relatively inexpensive and  will be enjoyed and appreciated and even make you a hero.

Wisconsin history and much more

“Round Barn” books: this series of four books centering on Wisconsin agriculture from 1903 to 1970 with the Dougan Farm (and its round barn) at Beloit the centerpiece. I'd guess that most folks in Wisconsin have an interest in dairying history and many books have been written on the subject but none I've ever read (and I've read a lot of them) are as complete and as interesting as "The Round Barn...A Biography of an American Farm."

Jackie Dougan Jackson has written four outstanding “Round Barn” books chronicling dairy farming in Wisconsin.

The series began in 2012 and now includes four volumes, each of them some 500 pages long. The author of this huge and accurate history of farming in Wisconsin (1906 - 1972) is Jacqueline Dougan Jackson, a retired professor from the University of Illinois at Springfield who was raised on that Beloit dairy farm.

The barn

The Round Barn that was built by Jackson's grandfather, Wesson J. Dougan in Beloit in 1911, is the central presence throughout the books. From it come stories of most every thing that happened on the farm and in dairy agriculture from 1906 when Dougan purchased it until it was sold in 1972 by his son Ron.

The four volumes of “The Round Barn” series. One, two or all make a great gift.

The books are full of stories about employees, neighbors, ag leaders and agriculture. The author (Ron’s daughter Jackie) was a consummate note-taker as apparently were her father and grandfather as the detail about people and farming shows. If you like Wisconsin dairying and farming, family, good stories and history, you and your gift receivers love these books. Go to to order and to read more details about the books and author.  One or more would make a great gift.

Wisconsin cheese is always a welcome gift at Christmas.

Cheese is perfect

For the relatives and friends, especially  those who live far away, the ideal gift is Wisconsin cheese. Locally owned cheese factories that send products by mail include Decatur Dairy Brodhead at and Hennings Wisconsin Cheese at Kiel at Hundreds of varieties to chose from. At the same time order some for yourself.

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