The sorrow of losing Wisconsin's dairy herds

John Oncken
Few dairy farmers today will remember the milk cans of the 20th century.

For the first time in modern dairy history (since Wisconsin became a dairy state), the number of licensed dairy herds in the state fell below 7,000.

As of Dec. 1, 2020, the number stood at 6,949 – a decline of 343 from the 7,292 of a year ago. The loss of nearly 400 dairy operations is rather severe, but not as bad as last year, when 818 dairies closed. 

Stories have begun to appear in the media detailing how families have had to sell their dairy farms, some many generations old, and how the big corporate dairies are taking over.

Large dairies are a sign of the times.

Feeling sorrow

I feel sorry for every family farm that goes out of business. After all, I was raised on such a farm, even smaller in size. The three of us – Dad, me and my younger brother Donald – milked but a dozen cows by hand for a number of years. 

After all us kids graduated from college and were long gone from the farm, Dad added six cows to make a herd of 18, the biggest herd ever in our family, and the barn was full.

At age 65 or 70, Dad sold the cows, raised pigs and cropped the land before having an auction and selling the farm to a niece and heading into retirement. But never again did the barn house a milking herd, and the number of dairy herds in the state dropped by one from the state total of 60,000.

And we weren't alone. The state dairy herd numbers were dropping by 2,000 or 4,000 a year at that time as the small farms turned to grain or found off-farm lives.

Signs of the dairy farms from decades ago are still visible on most every country road.

It's not unusual

The demise of the Oncken dairy herd was rather typical of what was happening at the time, and still now.

I remember (while in high school) my dad occasionally talking about eventually buying a neighboring farm, building a bigger barn and doubling the herd size. I also remember not being all that excited about spending my life farming because I was too busy playing high school sports.

I just assumed it would happen and Dad and I would stay farming, and eventually I would own the farm. But I actually gave the idea little serious thought. 

Like many cow-less dairy barns, the Oncken barn suffered some remodeling.

I also remember quite clearly – it was August after high school graduation, and I asked Dad about the farm expansion plans. He said that he had been thinking about it but had decided not to make that move because of how he had been in debt most all his farming life and didn’t feel like borrowing money again now that he was debt-free with a paid-for farm.

I didn’t argue with his decision, but realized I had to figure out my own future. Luckily I had received a University of Wisconsin-Madison scholarship at graduation that would pay my tuition for several years and give me a career headstart, which it did. 

The Oncken barn has not held dairy cows for decades.

Nineteen years later

Over the many years of this column, I’ve written of the declining number of Wisconsin dairy farms any number of times. My column of Oct. 18, 2001 sort of explains what was happening then and even now: "Today in 2001, according to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service, there are about 18,500 individual dairy operations. Thus, in 67 years there has been a loss of over 162,000 dairy farms."

'Horrors,' many say, isn’t it a shame that so many family farms are going out of business? Others suggest that this loss of farms is some kind of conspiracy and that the farmers were somehow forced out of business.

Before the pandemic, many in-person retirement auctions were held across the state.

Think again. Dairy farmers did and do leave their business for many reasons, including education, technology, lifestyle changes and changing family and professional interests. 

My own family illustrates some of these reasons. My parents decided not to go into debt by remodeling or building for an expanded dairy herd, and there was no family member with a strong urge to take over an expanded farm. Other smaller dairy families decide to leave dairying because of uncertainty in future milk pricing programs, dairy demand and keeping a market for their milk.

Over the years I’ve attended many farm auctions, most all held because of retirement, after years of no vacations and the twice a day, 365-day milking schedule that resulted in worn out knees, hips and ambition.

Today’s farmers seek automation.

Others still go on to expand

On the other hand, families with the urge to expand with family members eager to continue and willing to go into debt for the needed equipment, services and management have gotten bigger and will continue to do so. No, they are not evil corporations, rather family corporations who are such in order to develop and maintain a growing business.

And don’t forget, behind many (60% or so) of the successful and acclaimed dairy operations is often a wife with a professional off-farm job providing many dollars and health benefits to the farm's bottom line.

Will farms numbers still decline? Yes, probably – California with more milk production has about 1,700 dairy farms. Unless a supply management program appears (it's doubtful) or world dairy consumption increases dramatically, I’d guess farm numbers will continue going down just like every other business in our economy – gas stations, grocery stores, newspapers and just about everything else.

The trend is always toward bigger and better equipment.

Blame it on mechanization, automation, education, politicization and entrepreneurs with ambition and ideas. It all results in change.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at