Decline in farm numbers continues

John Oncken
When a dairy closes, the cattle usually go en mass to another farm or are sold at auction.

The decline in the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin is an often discussed subject: Some folks see it as a tragic event that is the result of small farms being "forced out" by some evil — but, never named — factor or persons. They also often suggest that the dairy world would be prosperous and happy if farming was only like the 40s, 50s and 60s. (My guess is that they never actually farmed during that era, but maybe visited Grandpa's dairy.)

Some history

In 1960 there were 105,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin, 10 years later the figure had dropped by 44,000 to 64,000 operating dairies. By 1980 the number of dairy operations was at 45,000, a 10-year drop of 19,000 units. In 1990 the figure was at 34,000, a loss of 11,000 farms. By 2000 the number of dairy herds was at 21,000, down another 12,000 dairies.

And by January 1, 2022 the number was at 6,533. That's a decline of 103,000 dairy herds in just over 60 years. And many of our dairy folks have lived and farmed over that span of years.

What happened?

In 1960, the typical dairy herd of 20 cows averaged about 8,000 pounds of milk. Today's average herd of 120 cows produces about 24,000 pounds of milk per cow. Those early herds were just too small for the family to make a living and many quit milking for what they called a "day job."

The results over the past 60 years are shocking and were caused by many things including the merging of the very small dairies unable to provide a living. The reasons for the decline in herd numbers occurred from the 1950's on. Since then changes in technology across all aspects of agriculture included advances in haying, bulk milk hauling, freestall barns; bigger and better tillage, planting, harvesting and milking equipment. 

A traditional barn with a free-stall addition.

Meanwhile the Dutch dairymen in California with their mega dairies with cows numbering in the thousands began realizing that they need not milk their own cows but could hire employees to do it. Yes, that was also the era when farm kids, boys and girls, were routinely attending universities in big numbers preparing for off farm careers. Many dairy producers quit milking their small dairy herds in favor of off farm work with regular hours and benefits rather than investing in the farm or expanding.

They learned fast

The entrepreneurial farmers saw a future in dairying and traveled to California to the Tulare Farm Show (long ago renamed as World Ag Expo) to learn how those Dutch and Portuguese dairymen could build and manage big herds, and, learn they did.

Compare the ventilation and air flow in today’s barns to the old stanchion barn in terms of cow comfort and milk flow.

Meanwhile Wisconsin's smaller farms were disappearing with the farm depression of the late 80s taking out the under-financed and over-leveraged dairies by the dozens.

It was about 1980 when Rock County dairy farmer Roger Rebout expanded to 200 cows — some scoffed saying "it would never work being so big". Others watched and copied and formed partnerships, corporations and LLCs and grew their herds. Note: The Rebout family continued to milk the same number of cows until 2020 when it dispersed in favor of specializing in grain farming. But the race toward dairy expansion using technology and imported employees continued.

Today’s big free stall barns can handle thousands of cows.

The future?

The future of smaller dairies depends on their viability — will they support a next generation? Is there a next generation willing to invest and an older generation willing to give up control? Will the milk market continue to grow to absorb the ever-increasing milk production?

How many farms in Wisconsin will be milking cows next year? Ten years from now? In 2040? Who knows? Chances are the forward thinking and progressive dairy families will be there but there will be even more empty barns dotting the rural scene — bet on it.

Today, robotic milking and feeding are not uncommon on Wisconsin farms.

Thank the farmers!

March 22 is National Ag Day, according to the USDA, a time for all of us to thank farmers and landowners for feeding, sheltering and powering our nation. We also want to celebrate and recognize the pivotal role of producers in mitigating climate change through voluntary conservation efforts.

"Climate change is happening, evidenced by persistent drought, frequent tornadoes and storms, and larger and more powerful wildfires. Our agricultural communities are on the frontlines. Now is the time for us to act, and Wisconsin producers are doing their part.

We’re focused on providing producers tools to help mitigate climate change. As part of this, the Biden-Harris Administration has taken proactive steps to improve programs.

We bolstered the Conservation Reserve Program, providing an incentive for climate-smart practices and investing in partnerships to better quantify the benefits of this program.

With our Environmental Quality Incentives Program, we launched a new cover crop initiative as well as new conservation incentive contract option, all with a goal to make available additional funds to help producers conserve natural resources.

And finally, we’re enhancing Federal crop insurance to support conservation. In 2021 and 2022, we provided producers with a premium benefit for acres planted to cover crops".

Yes, federal farm programs continue and why not? What is more important than food?

John F Oncken can be reached at 608-572-0747 or