The future of the dairy industry in Wisconsin poses many questions

John Oncken
Small herds on green grass are becoming  scarce.

According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protections National Ag Statistics Service, there were 6,533 herds milking on Wisconsin dairy farms on Jan. 1, 2022. That's a drop of 399 from a year ago and 39 more than the 360 farms that disappeared In 2020 — far fewer than the loss of 818 licensed herds in 2019. And the yearly loss of dairy herds on Wisconsin dairy farms continues since it began in the 1930’s.

The Oncken barn and hog house has stood empty for decades.

The Amish and Mennonites

Clark County continues its distinction of having the highest number of herds in the state with 696, followed by Marathon County with 409. (Both counties are the home to a large number of small Amish and Mennonite dairies that account for the high totals in each county.)

Fewer herds for 100 years

Wisconsin has steadily lost dairy herds since early last century and its number of milk cows has fallen by 1,112,000 since 1944, when the all-time high figure was reached. Nevertheless, total milk production continued to rise until the late 1980s because of a nearly three-fold increase in milk production per cow. After a slight dip in production, it has grown since 2004. However, in 1993 Wisconsin lost its lead in milk production to California and has remained #2 since the Golden State also made big gains in production.

Wisconsin is still the leader in cheese production and will remain so.

Still the milk

However, the reduction in total farms does not mean there's less milk production. Although the farms are gone, chances are the cows just moved to new barns and are still milking in the existing dairy herds (1.3 million cows) which are increasing milk flow by the day.

The trend in the total number of licensed dairy herds in Wisconsin over the past three years continues downward: 2022: 6,533 – down 399; 2021: 6,932 – down 360; 2020: 7,292 – down 818.

Dairy experts see no reason for a change in direction as herds continue to expand upward in scale and the traditional small family-operated farm finds it more difficult to remain profitable. (Note: California, with its high milk production does it on about 1600 herds.)

The small family dairy herds are struggling.

Looking back

I first became aware in 1972 that a dairy herd could exceed the Wisconsin herds I had known — small in size, milked by the family, housed in a stanchion barn, each cow treated like a family pet — while on a visit to southern California to view ABS progeny test offspring. (I was ABS Dairy Advertising Manager at the time.) My first visit was to the Albers Dairy at Chine where I saw some 800 milk cows being milked with the family not involved in the process. They were managers, not workers they said. 

The first

During that trip I also spent some time with Doug Maddox at his RuAnn Dairy at Riverdale who was putting together what later was known as the first mega dairy ever (1,000 cows in one location).

A new, super dairy in Fresno county California.

Over the years, I visited many of the big California dairies and wrote about them and how they worked closely with consultants of all kinds: nutritionists, veterinarians, financial, human resource and more....something I’d not seen being done in my home state. 

Early on

Wisconsin dairy producers said “Why can’t we dairy that way?” Of course they could and did and our farms grew in cow numbers and continue to do so. As a result Wisconsin became a California in many dairy aspects: hired labor, more cows, more milk per dairy and consolidation of the dairy industry. 

Change will continue and my main question is: Who will be the next owners of our first wave of mega dairies if there is no family member to take over? Second question: Who will be the third owner (years from now) when the farm has 10,000 cows and family can’t purchase the operation?  

A subject for another day.

The smaller, specialized dairies will remain.

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