While big farms grow, where do the smaller ones go?

John Oncken
The well run smaller dairy will be with us for a long time.

There are about 6,500 dairy farms in Wisconsin – the state’s lowest number for decades yet far and away more than in any other state. The dairies range in size from perhaps 25 cows to several herds of well-over 6,000 cows.

In spite of the considerable discussion about so-called “big corporate farms,” less than five percent of Wisconsin’s dairy herds have over 700 cows. The vast majority are in the 50 to 400 cow range 

Corporate farms?

The much discussed and maligned term “corporate farms” has been a favorite term since the first mega dairy appeared in the state a couple decades ago. I think it is meant to portray bigger farms as being owned by “evil” outside non-farmer corporations. (Actually, I know of only one, perhaps two, dairy operations fitting that description.)

Many farms today are owned today are owned by multiple family members like the Williams brother and their Bedrock Holsteins.

It’s still family

According to USDA records, the nation’s dairy farms are most all family owned and a 2020 DATCP survey shows that Wisconsin’s dairy farms are owned by the families that work, finance and live on them. 

Yes, many farm families do incorporate their business to protect individual family members, allow transition within the family and to provide a logical business structure.

The latest DATCP survey showed Wisconsin dairy farm ownership as: 67% sole partnership; 18% LLC/LLP; 8% multi-partnership and 7% family corporation.

Over the many years of this weekly column, I’ve written about all types and sizes of farms--mostly about small farms because that is what we have the most of. For the life of me I can’t understand the common perception among many folks that small is good and big is bad.

The Dolph family expanded as the next generation joined the dairy operation.

At the same time, these people buy from the big box stores, often have never experienced owning their own business and use the most modern technology and equipment in their own lives. 

It’s cow comfort today

Note: One often hears folks opposed to larger dairy herds citing animal mistreatment as a reason for their opposition. Balderdash and baloney! The cows in the big operations  are far better cared for than those in our old stanchion barn: freedom of movement; plenty of sleeping space; sand or mattress bedding and all -around cow comfort. Visit a modern free stall barn and you will see. 

Farms have gotten bigger, can support more cows thanks to high tech.

CAFO’s? Yes! 

While the number of Wisconsin dairy herds has indeed declined, the number of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) dairy farms in the state has grown to a total 289. A CAFO is defined by the USDA as “an animal feeding operation in which over 1,000 animals’ units are confined for over 45 days a year. An animal unit is defined as an animal equivalent of 1,000 pounds live weight and equates to 700 dairy cows.

The area of the state of Wisconsin with the most CAFO units is the NE region. The counties with the most CAFO operations were Brown with 21, Manitowoc with 23, Kewaunee with 17, Fond du Lac with 16, Marathon with 13, Dane with 11, and Outagamie, Clark, and Sheboygan all having ten. The other counties in the state had less than ten CAFO farms.

These CAFO’s are less than five percent of all dairy farm operations in the state. This information is based on the DNR Data as of January 1, 2021. 

What happens then?

When a dairy farm decides to cease dairy operations, what happens to the facility? According to Compeer Financial Services, there are three main markets for dairy farms. The first is the mature small farm market (50-100 cows) and is relatively inactive with most buyers being local. These farms are not being purchased for the use as an operating dairy, but for add on land base or as part-time farms.  

There are many vacant bars to be seen on rural roads.

The second market of mid-sized dairy farms (100 to 700 cows) is very limited and generally consists of 10-30-year-old free stall barns and parlor systems. These facilities suffer from a fairly higher equipment and facility costs and sometimes higher labor costs.

The use of these sized dairy farms when sold, vary from buyers purchasing them for the continued use as an operating dairy farm, the use of the facility to be used for raising young stock or dry cows, or being purchased mainly for the land base with the buildings being used as a part-time farm.

The third tier is comprised of modern large farms (700+ cows). These size farms continue to grow in size with a lot of the farmers looking to expand their operations. The number of dairy farm sales for these size farms in Wisconsin, have been very limited. 

The big continue to get bigger.

Year after year there continues to be a decline in the number of dairy operations and an increase in the number of dairy cows in the state.

And sad but true it appears that trend will continue.  

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