The milk continues to flow

John Oncken
Big barns, more cows, more milk made California #1 in 1993.

As pretty much always happens, when the price of milk farmers receive goes up, they produce more milk. And it’s happening again. For the fifth time in 2020, Wisconsin dairy cows produced more milk during December then they did compared to the same month a year ago. 

The USDA -NASS reports that Wisconsin cows produced 2.60 billion pounds during the month – up 2.6 % from last December.

Nationally, 18.1 billion pounds of milk was produced in the 24 major dairy states in December – a 3.2% increase from 2019. Eighteen of the top 24 states had higher year-to-year production last month. 

Still No. 1

California continues to have the highest total milk production with about 3.51 billion pounds in December. Note that California cows continued to keep that state far ahead of Wisconsin in terms of milk production which will surprise many people who see the often-used “America’s Dairyland’” motto as the defining words. Wrong. It was in 1993 that California took over the milk production reins and have continued to hold that position ever since with just over 40 billion pounds of milk last year compared to Wisconsin’s 31 billion.

Cows lived in outside corrals in the former California Dairy Preserve and some are still housed in that fashion in the Central Valley.

Rivers of milk

Recently a friend commented that he had heard Wisconsin was second in milk production and couldn’t believe it. “Did Wisconsin’s milk production decline so as to allow California to surpass us? My answer: California did indeed become the #1 milk production state in 1993 but it was not entirely because Wisconsin lost milk production, rather it was because California “put the pedal to the metal” and produced rivers of milk.

A decline? Yes.

Yes, Wisconsin’s milk production of 25 billion pounds in 1988 gradually declined to 22.8 billion pounds in 1993. In the meantime, California was moving up and up. In 1988, the Golden state produced about 16.6 billion pounds of milk (almost 10 billion pounds less than Wisconsin) and in 1993 that state hit 22.9 billion pounds to surpass Wisconsin as top milk producer. Since then California has just run away from Wisconsin to the tune of 40 billion pounds in 2020 compared to Wisconsin’s 31 billion pounds. But, we still make more cheese!

What happened? 

In 1970, Wisconsin had 64,000 dairy farms with an average of 28 cows and about 960 herds milking 100 cows or more. Milking parlors were few and far between and the general feeling of dairy producers was that 50 cows was about the limit in how many cows could be milked on a family farm. 

In that same year of 1970, the recently new Dairy Preserve in the Chino Valley east of  Los Angeles was expanding at a rapid pace as older and smaller dairies were relocating from the former dairy areas near the burgeoning Los Angeles.

The Albers Dairy in Chino was the first dairy visited in California by this writer. It is now the site of a huge warehouse.

Immigrants came

The Dutch and Portuguese dairymen who had migrated to America after World War II not only built on the cheaper land – some called it desert – but milking parlors were installed and hired labor was used to milk the cows. And the milk flowed from the 40-acre dairies with 800 to 1000 cows with only a ranch house and parlor as permanent buildings.

California milk production increased by half a billion pounds of milk per year during the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s and by a billion pounds a year in the late 90’s and 2000’s.  Meanwhile Wisconsin’s milk production was also increasing but barely. In fact, it took until 2010 for the state’s production to again hit the 25 billion pound mark that was established in 1988. 

In the mid-1990s, developers were eager to get their hands on real estate in the southern California Chino Valley. Many small dairy farmers sold out and moved their operations elsewhere.

Money talks

By the mid-1990’s developers were casting eager eyes at the 14,000 acres in the southern California Chino Valley Dairy Preserve and it was lifted in 1993. Dairy producers, many who had guessed this would happen and had purchased land in the San Joaquin Valley several hundred miles north, began selling their 20- and 40-acre dairies at unbelievably high prices and moved only to build again.

The remains of a once large dairy in the former Dairy Preserve.

Bigger and better

Of course, they did not just move their 500 to 1000 cows. Instead, they built new and bigger and the strip from Bakersfield north to Sacramento sprouted new dairies, many of them 2,000 to 5,000 cows in size and all housed in freestall barns (copied from the new dairies being built in the Midwest) and away from the mud and rains of the corral type housing used in their former location. The result was even more milk and by 2008, California hit 41 billion pounds of milk as compared to Wisconsin’s 24 billion pounds.

Today Tulare County in central California is far and away the milk capitol of the world but what about the former milk shed in the old Chino/Ontario Dairy Preserve? 

Martin de Hoog, right, and his family have milked 500 cows on their Ontario dairy since 1972.  Since selling the dairy, Martin says he " does not much".  Son, Martin Jr., now milks 400 cows in northwest Iowa.

About all gone

“There may be about 20 dairies remaining,” Rick Behm, a loan officer at the Chino Business Bank guessed. “That would be top,” longtime friend Martin de Hoog agreed in our recent phone conversation. “Those may even be sold and awaiting development,” he says.

Martin and Elizabeth de Hoog moved to the area in 1972 and built new and milked 500 cows on their 20 acres. “We were small and never expanded” Martin says. They did sell their land several years ago (and the parlor is leased and has cows in it) on a long term payment basis but still live in their ranch house.

“I get a quarterly check with three years to go,” he says. Their son Martin Jr. is milking 400 cows in northeastern Iowa which I suspect they jointly own. 

It’s safe to say that California led the way to the advent of the big dairies across the land and yes, milk flow continues to increase – let’s hope that demand does the same 

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