Dairy herd numbers continue to slide downward

John Oncken
Once a dairy farm, has now been reduced to a cow yard.

As expected, dairy herd numbers in Wisconsin declined in 2022 as they have every year since the 1930's. The loss of 417 herds during the year led to a current total of 6,116, down from the 6,533 of a year ago, was about as expected.

Some years ago I wrote: “In 1968, there were 71,000 dairy farms in our state, in 1998 there were 23,000. That’s a drop of 48,000 in 30 years, 1,600 per year, 4.3 herds per day. Wow!"

Let’s review

A story about that same time based on a National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) study, suggested that “a tougher, harsher business environment was blamed for many of the losses.”

Wait a moving from an 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 away from milking cows twice a day with a bucket-style milker to a modern dairy operation truly a tougher, harsher business environment? Many dairy producers considered it spending money to get out of slavery.

Not unusual

The demise of the Oncken dairy herd was rather typical of what was happening at the time (and what is still happening today). While in high school, I remember my dad occasionally talking about buying a neighboring farm, building a bigger barn and doubling the herd size. I also remember not being all that excited about the idea as I was too busy playing high school sports. I just assumed that would happen and eventually I would own the farm.  At the time I actually gave the idea little serious thought. 

Didn’t do it

It was August after high school graduation when I asked Dad about the farm expansion plans. He said that he had been thinking about it long and hard and had decided not to make that move. He related how he had been in debt most all his farming life and didn’t feel like borrowing money again now that he was debt free with a paid for farm.

I didn’t argue with his decision but realized I had to figure out my own future. Luckily I remembered a UW-Madison scholarship I had received at graduation that would pay my tuition for several years and give me a career start ‒ which it did. 

Running the numbers

As I stated earlier, between 1968 and 1998, there was a drop of 48,000 dairy herds in 30 years; that's 1,600 per year, 4.3 herds per day. Today there are but 6,116 herds, a drop of almost 17,000 since 1998 (1.5 herds per day over the past year) with possible small declines still certain to come in future years.

From a dirt floor barn with few cows, the Meinholz family has three Blue Star Dairies developed by three generations.

Many of the 300 so-called mega dairies are the result of fathers and sons combining their small farms or expanding the home farm to allow another family member to join the farming operation. The result is a bigger farm where one set of labor-saving machinery replaced several sets of outdated, obsolete, labor intensive junk.

“Many farms that couldn't compete ended up as (failed) farm statistics”, the NMPF wrote. 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.

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

Of course, a few dairy farmers do fail ‒ just like electricians, plumbers, lawyers, writers, computer experts and even doctors. There are many reasons for financial failure: divorce, illness, family fights, weather and...being inept at what one does. Pure and simple ‒ most dairy farms absolutely do not fail ‒ but, the cows are likely sold and the dairy is no more.

Well managed small dairies can and will exist for many years to come.

Just because two or three brothers built a new dairy facility 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 new modern facility is a major success in terms of a better lifestyle and financially.

Many sons and daughters of dairy farmers went to college and became educators, industry leaders or professionals. They chose not to farm and eventually the “home place” was sold to a neighbor, a new farm family or perhaps to a nearby city for development. Another notch in the “farm loss” data.

Successful dairy farmers know dairy farming today is built on technology, business plans and lifestyle decisions leading to larger farms Nevertheless, it’s not an easy life: it's work hard and long hours; it’s money intensive ‒ like many businesses; not everyone is good at it; nature still calls the shots; guarantees of success are few and far between and in spite of the best of intentions, there are failures.

Yes, it hurts me to see those empty barns and farmhouses I’ve visited and drank coffee in and in which I talked with farmer friends, now long gone from the farms.

Those headlines of fewer dairy herds are scary but before we declare war on someone or something, tell me, what is the right number of dairy farms we should have in Wisconsin and who should be running them? I and an entire industry would really like to know.

John Oncken can be reached at