One less dairy a day in 2021

John Oncken
The two-story traditional dairy barn was not built for cow comfort.

As of Dec. 1, 2021, the number of licensed dairy herds in Wisconsin stood at 6,611— 338 less than the 6,949 of a year ago. That number is 343 below the 7,292 of 2119. A loss of nearly one dairy herd a day over the past three years is certainly rather severe, but not as bad as in 2018 when 818 dairies closed. 

Feel sorry

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 than most any still milking cows today. After 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. And the number of dairy herds in the state dropped by one from the then state total of 60,000.

Wooden stanchions limited herd size.

And we weren't alone. The state dairy herd numbers were dropping by 2,000 to 4,000 a year at that time as many small farmers turned to grain or found off-farm lives. Those were the years when farm kids were encouraged to get a job at GM in Janesville or Allis Chalmers in West Allis.

Didn't expand

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

Cow comfort is number one today.

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. 

I also remember quite clearly – it was the August after my high school graduation that I asked Dad about the farm expansion plans. He said that he 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.

There are still many well-kept tie stall barns in use today.

Went to college

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 head start on my career, which it did. 

 An old story

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."

Modern milking equipment has made it more efficient to milk bigger herds.

Not forced

'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.

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

Still Family

Take a look at the big dairies of today: Most are multi generational: parents and children or partnerships of several individuals or families. In all cases someone or several involved is/are ambitious enough to grow and all are willing to use money and management to replace labor and routine.

How many old manure spreaders would this modern spreader replace?

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 a 365-day milking schedule. John Judd who with his wife Joan are dispersing their at Mount Horeb-based La-Follette Dairy Registered Holstein herd on December 16. The auction ad notes one reason for selling: “After 53 years John has decided to retire from milking.”

Each week, the Wisconsin State Farmer has several ads for dairy dispersals giving “retirement” as the reason. (Interestingly, the cows will be bought by farmers with the urge to expand and eager to spend money to do so.)  No, they are not evil corporations, rather family corporations who are buying in order to develop and maintain a growing business.

Before tractors came horses.

I’d guess farm numbers will continue going down just like every other business in our economy. Blame it on mechanization, automation, education, politicization and entrepreneurs with ambition and ideas. It all results in change.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at