The weather, milk and cheese of Wisconsin

John Oncken
Dairy processors were also heavily impacted by the pandemic, especially in the early days when the market was unsteady.

A temperature below zero at night, barely above that mark in the daytime, makes for lots of worries and problems for everyone. Even worse is that those temperatures are slated to last for well over a week. City folks worry about the furnace staying in working order and the water pipes next to outside wall under the kitchen sink freezing. 

What about the cows?

Minor concerns when you stop and think about a dairy farmer with a hundred or a thousand cows in a barn – tie stall or freestall. Each has its problems when the temperature falls so low for so long. Fortunately, cows tolerate low temperatures better than hot, humid summer temperatures. 

Fans and sidewall curtains provide cow comfort in the dairy barn during the cold winter.
Jackets for young calves living in outside hutches are becoming more popular. There is also an increasing number of young calf barns being built.

Dairy farmers know that if they keep their cows well-bedded, well-fed, well-watered and well-ventilated, the cows will be fine. Farmers have often told me that such cold streaks are harder on them than on the cows, what with broken pipes to be fixed in a hurry, tractors that don’t want to start and all the things that break and freeze up and must be fixed. Then there are the slippery snow and ice patches (that never melted) just waiting for the in-the-hurry human to momentarily forget them, slip and slide and land on their knees or seat with the bucket of water they were carrying now soaking into their jeans. 

They know the drill by now

Not to worry – farmers well know how to take care of their animals and themselves, and also know that a few months down the road the ice and zero temperatures will be forgotten and heat and humidity will be the subject of concern, again emphasizing that among the many challenges farmers face, weather is the one they can’t control.

Lots of snow can make life harder for the humans to keep the cows fed and happy.

Dairy farmers had an ever-changing and sort of disruptive year, what with many dairy processors asking for big cuts in milk production followed almost immediately by a need for more milk. Such a switch might have been easier for a lower production dairy that could sell a cow or two, then buy a cow or two a short time later.

It’s not so easy when the herd is averaging in the higher 20,000-pound production range and all the cows are high producers. A dairyman explained: "I spent years breeding this top-producing herd and had to sell several cows to cut my milk flow, then couldn’t raise my production when the demand went back up."

The larger dairy herds also received the government benefits making for a "good year."
The smaller dairy herds benefitted from government programs.

The lows and highs of dairying

Dairy producers faced much doom and gloom from their losses accrued early in the pandemic when the all-milk price hit $13.60 in May, the lowest price since 2009. But to most everyone's surprise, the milk market zoomed to a near record price of $21.39 in November, the highest since 2014. Dairy consumption also zoomed as consumers bought dairy products for their at-home eating. 

Feed, water, ventilation and comfort keep cows happy during the cold winter.

Early during the pandemic, the government came up with several programs to compensate dairy farmers for losses incurred during the pandemic. University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy economist Mark Stephenson recently summarized the year from the producer price aspect: "Taken together, the net milk income from the market and various programs was by far the best income year since 2014."

Stephenson also added, "This much better income has helped stabilize the loss of dairy herds in 2019. It also has added cows to the national herd since July and stimulated milk production per cow. ... You have to wonder if we can handle the surge."

All in all, as farmers have told me and Stephenson points out, dairy producers had a relatively good year income-wise in spite of some doom and gloom stories that appeared during the year. But watch out – too much milk might again rear its head and begin the cycle anew.

Wisconsin still led the nation in highest cheese production this year, ahead of California.

An abundance of cheese

US cheese production last year hit a new production record of 13.2 billion pounds –some 53.3 million pounds over 2019, according to a recent US Department of Agriculture/National Agricultural Statistics Service report. It's not a surprise to most market followers as cheese production has advanced every year since 1991.

Wisconsin, the number one cheese producer, easily maintained its lead with 279.3 pounds (up 1.2%) produced to California’s 208.5 million pounds (down 4.1%). Cheddar cheese, with a record 3.84 billion pounds produced, remained the crowd favorite. 

Eating at home has kept dairy consumption at a high level, thus adding to high sales in the dairy departments at supermarkets.

What will happen to Wisconsin’s dairy industry in the coming months is about as clear as mud, as Dad used to say. Will restaurants open again? Will big meetings, conventions, conferences and sporting events get back to normal?

No one knows, but whatever the answer, it will have an impact on Wisconsin's agriculture and its producers. Only time will tell.

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