The "other" story behind the decline in farm numbers in Wisconsin

John Oncken
Small barns holding 8 - 10 cows were most common before the age of technology began.

The aim of this column has always been is to offer insight into farming, agribusiness, the rural scene and the people of agriculture — all important to Wisconsin.

Opinions on farming are many and often can lead to argument. Whatever the subject: farm bills; milk price; small farms; big farms; manure, animal rights...there is a well organized farm group on every side of the issue.

6583 dairy herds today

DATCP/NASS announced that as of Jan. 1, 2022, Wisconsin had 6,533 herds milking on state dairy farms. 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. 

Looking back even further, in 1991 when this column had its start there were 32,521 herds in the state meaning a loss of 26,000 herds over the 31 years." What a shock!  What a surprise!" To whom” I ask, “and why?”

Harvestores arrived in the 1950’s and milk production jumped as dairymen learned about quality hay.

Small farms, small herds

In the 1930‘s There were an estimated 130,000 dairy farms in the state, mostly small and with few cows. After World War II and the advent of increased milking technology, farm numbers continued to fall. What happened?

Since the 1950’s a new generation of farmers was entering the dairy scene and began moving from the old wooden stanchion barn with small narrow dairy stalls, a silo you had to climb daily, a hay baler from which you had to lift each and every bale and years without a vacation to a modern dairy operation. Many dairy producers considered it spending money to get out of slavery and into the modern world, to get kids into college, take vacations and have a business that would support a family in a civilized manner. 

To do so, fathers and sons combined their small farms to make one bigger farm where one set of labor-saving machinery replaced several sets of outdated, obsolete, labor intensive junk. In many families, sons and daughters decided to join the family farm resulting in more land and cows.

The traditional stanchion barn dates to the early 1900’s.

“Many farms that couldn't compete ended up as (failed) farm statistics.” farm experts said. Wait just a minute! What do they mean by “couldn’t compete?” I have yet to meet a farmer who quit farming because they couldn’t “compete” with other farmers. I do know hundreds, maybe thousands who left farming because they wanted to retire and fortunately had a neighbor willing to offer the means (money) to make retirement possible.

Not competing with each other

Farmers do leave farming because they can’t compete, but chances are that the competition is from real estate companies, industrial development committees, road builders and rich city folks – all who will pay tons of money for a farmer’s land. 

Plastic has taken the place of concrete on many farms.

Of course, a few dairy farmers do fail just like electricians, lawyers, writers, computer experts and even doctors. There are many reasons for financial failure – divorce, illness, family feuds, weather and bad luck. Pure and simple, most dairy farms absolutely do not fail but those thousands of dairy farming units that disappeared from the records over 30 years did go somewhere. 

Merging 3 into one

Just because two or three brothers built a new dairy facility together and closed three ancient ones doesn’t mean anyone failed. It’s an insult to all those progressive farmers who studied, planned, invested and now operate top-notch dairy operations. Chances are that the new modern facility is a major success in terms of a better lifestyle and financial situation. 

The big herds in Wisconsin learned from the California Dutch dairy producers that employed Hispanics in mega dairies.

Many sons and daughters of dairy farmers went to college and became educators, industry leaders or professionals. Eventually the “home place” was sold to a neighbor who was expanding his herd, a new farm family or perhaps to a nearby city for development. 

It’s a business and lifestyle

Dairy farming today is built on technology, serious planning and family decisions. Work is still hard but different. It’s money intensive like many businesses, however; nature still calls the shots and guarantees of success are few and far between.

Yes, it hurts me to see those empty barns and farmhouses where I’ve visited and drank coffee in and in which I talked with farmer friends. 

Many traditional barns with additions are in use today, probably after remodeling.

Stories of fewer dairy farms are always sad to read but before we declare war on someone or something, tell me this: What is the right number of dairy farms for Wisconsin and who should be running them? I and an entire industry would like to know. 

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