The dairy herd decline continues

John Oncken
Most of Wisconsin’s dairies are of small (50 cows) to medium size (150). All are family-owned.

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. Ten years later the figure had dropped by 41,000 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.

As July 1, 2022, the number of dairy farms stands at 6335, that is a loss of 198 from the 6533 at the beginning of 2022. That's a decline of over 13,600 herds since 2000 just 22 years ago...and most of our dairy folks have lived and farmed over that span of years.

What happened?

In 1960, the average dairy herd of 20 cows averaged about 8,000 pounds of milk, today's average herd of 110 cows produces about 24,000 pounds of milk per cow.

Some Wisconsin dairy herds now have over 5,000 cows.

Modernization came

Prior to World War II, Wisconsin dairying was still in the family culture of operation: horse-drawn implements, no electricity, hand-milking and high labor inputs. It was in the 1960s and 70s when mechanization really hit farming: Harvestores (and other sealed storage) that changed haying; bulk milk hauling; freestall barns; bigger and better tillage, planting and harvesting equipment; the big herds in California and the realization that the dairyman 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 jobs down the road.

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. Allis Chalmers in West Allis and GMC in Janesville readily hired any hard working farm boy who wanted a job. And fathers often encouraged their sons to get a job where you got vacations and regular paychecks – and so they did.

Dairy auctions have been very common the past 50 years. There are fewer sales now as herd numbers have decreased.

They learned

Meanwhile, 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.

The 1000-cow herd was no longer a novelty and big freestall barns sprang up all across the state. Big rotary milking parlors came on the scene and gave opportunity to milk big herds of cows with just a few people doing the milking.

At the same time Wisconsin's smaller dairy farms were dropping by the thousands with the farm depression of the late 80s taking out the under-financed and over-leveraged dairies by the dozens. Expansion became the watchword with the phrase “grow or die” becoming the direction offered by the dairy technology industry.

Many families have gradually expanded their cow numbers.

Certainly dairy technology led the way to farm expansion and milk and crop production. The dairyman of 25 years ago would have a difficult time recognizing the dairy equipment, medicines and supplements used in today's dairy herds.

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?

It was about 1980 when Rock County dairyman Roger Rebout went to 200 cows — some scoffed saying "it would never work being so big," and others watched and copied. The farm stayed at that herd level until a couple of years ago when it went to all grain and beef farming

Despite the ups and downs of milk prices, many dairy producers added cows and invested in their dairies. Some brought their sons and daughters into equity positions by forming partnerships, corporations or LLC's.

The future?

How many farms in Wisconsin will be milking cows next year, five years from now, in 2030? Who knows? I'm very sure that dairy farms will continue to grow in size as labor remains a challenge and technology leads the way.

A big dairy barn that has been vacant for many years.

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.

My question? Many of the mega dairies of today were formed and are still owned by farmers in their 40s and 50s who are now approaching retirement. Some have no sons or daughters to take over, who will own the farm? What about the next farm turnover, will the farm stay in the family or will it be bought by an outside corporation?

John Oncken can be reached at