Dairyland Dispatch

I have a soft spot in my heart for small-family dairy farms in our state. Historically Wisconsin has been dotted by small family farms whose primary business was dairy production. They have molded Wisconsin’s culture and left a legacy for generations. This Dairyland Dispatch will highlight the challenges they face and the outcomes they achieve.

Special Report

Adjust and adapt - Growing a Dairy farm


August 13, 2023

I hear a lot about milk pricing. So, I thought I would try my hand at understanding it. Forget that! Writing “Wisconsin’s Place in a Bewildering Milk Pricing System,” Will Cushman tried his hand at it. I did better than I did, but not much better.

He relayed this from a dairy processors trade organization:

“"There is an old joke about a senior-level USDA person testifying to Congress on dairy policy and milk pricing. He said there are only three people that understood it and two of them are lying."

Cushman then said, “The regulatory and market systems that determine the size of farmers' monthly milk payments are indeed complex. To help demystify how milk prices are determined, Wisconsin-based dairy economists provide a crash course in the history and unique economics of milk pricing in the United States.”

I commend his article to you. Let’s see how well you do!


July 14, 2023

Henry Redman, writing “CAFO owners suing to end DNR permits have spilled more than 26,000 gallons of manure,” has highlighted an important issue regarding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). A CAFO is a factory farm, with 1,000 animals or more, including 700 cows or more.

CAFOs produce a great deal of manure. The dominant issue concerns the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPEDS) Program. This program requires CAFOs to obtain a WPDES permit to discharge pollutants.

Two dairy industry groups, the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance (WDA) and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), sued DNR to exempt themselves from the permit requirements. They argue the permit requirements are too “time-consuming and costly.”

They have sued despite a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that the DNR can impose conditions on CAFOs to control their environmental effects. Note that the WMC is the state’s largest business lobby.

Not only is there an issue with handling waste pollutants at the CAFOs, but there is also an issue with manure spills during transport. Redman reported that CAFOs have spilled more than 26,000 gallons of manure since 2006. A manure spill can cause harmful substances to enter the state’s drinking water.

This is a legal court case. Therefore one would think that the powerful WMC would not be able to influence a court beyond the legal limits of the case.


June 27, 2023

“The New America's Dairyland”

Madison Magazine published a masterful article by Emma Waldinger on June 22, 2023, “The New America's Dairyland,” about the state's decline of dairy farms. Its focus is to describe work the Paoli community has done that “may illuminate a new way forward for small farming towns everywhere.” She notes Wisconsin has lost some 40,000 dairy farms in the last 40 years. She says, “The people of Paoli, population 153, are involved in a rare approach to community building that rests on the foundation of hyperlocal food systems.” She casts this as a “revival story” and describes the evolution.  Family farms consolidated, cooperatives formed, new technologies appeared, and “milk wars” took hold that “marked the end of the golden age of dairy farming.” Farmers followed then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s urging to “get big or get out.” Industrialized farm operations took hold, leading to “the eventual demise of 40,000 Wisconsin dairy herds.” The Paoli community’s response was a renovation, new partnerships, new products, and rebuilding a “more localized market.”


June 21, 2023

Wisconsin farmers dump thousands of gallons of milk.

Jan Shepel reported for Wisconsin State Farmer on June 21, 2023, “The system of milk hauling and processing is so overloaded in the Upper Midwest that any problem with a dairy plant is catastrophic.” Regulators shut down Hastings Creamery in Minnesota due to its problems with water quality regulators. The plant process 150,000 pounds of raw milk per day. Wisconsin dairy farms send their milk to this plant. Shepel wrote, “Milk and cream leaked from the plant into the Hastings Wastewater Treatment Plant in mid-May, causing the creamery to violate requirements on FOGs – fats, oils, and grease. A repeat of that kind of violation, regulators fear, could cripple the local water treatment plant in Hastings. The creamery’s shutdown is tied to a discharge rule that limits the amount of fat, wax, tallow, grease, or oil from animal or vegetable origin over 100 milligrams per liter because those substances have the potential to turn solid and obstruct the flow in public sewers.” It is worth noting that some milk from the South is pushing its way into the Upper Midwest, displacing milk produced there.


June 15, 2023

Dairy Stats

Buffalo County News reported useful state dairy statistics in its June 15, 2023 edition. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture says the state’s dairy industry is valued at $43 billion annually. The state’s dairy farmers milked 1.27 million cows monthly and produced 2,085 pounds of milk per cow. Clark, Marathon, Grant, and Vernon counties had the highest number of licensed dairy herds. Milk market prices remained volatile and varied across the country. California remains the top milk producer, and Wisconsin is the second largest. Wisconsin leads the pack in producing cheese, with some 3.52 billion pounds in 2022.


May 30, 2023

Proposal to change the federal system of milk pricing

Hope Kirwan, writing, “As Wisconsin continues to lose dairy farms, a national dairy group hopes to make milk more profitable,” has highlighted the staggering loss of dairy farms in Wisconsin. She says the state had 16,000 airy farms in 2003. It now has 6,000! The primary reason is that dairy farms have found it challenging to make a profit. The National Milk Producers Federation has recommended a way to update the system for pricing and selling milk in the US. Kirwan wrote, “The federation's proposals include changing the price formula for beverage milk back to the version that was in place before the 2018 Farm Bill, a change supported by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and other organizations. It also includes updating the standard for milk components like protein and nonfat solids. The change is meant to better reflect today's quality of milk due to improved genetics and better feed practices.”


February 11, 2020

Industrialization of dairy farming

Rick Barrett and Lee Berquist delved into the industrialization of Wisconsin’s dairy industry. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published their report on December 6, 2019, and updated it on February 11, 2020. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are taking over, driving milk production up and prices down, and forcing feed prices to soar. This has caused small dairy farms to shut down by the trainload. The authors refer to these CAFOs as “mega-farms” and “industrial farms.” Thousands of cows are held in massive metal buildings and are milked three times daily, “one, two, tree” as the Marine Corps drill sergeant might say. This kind of industrialization began in California, the leader in milk production. The question raised by the authors is “whether Wisconsin is suited for dairy farming on a grand scale and whether dairy farming as we have known it has a future.” The mega farm produces undesirable side effects, most notably waste contamination and water pollution. The authors say, “The largest Wisconsin CAFOs with 6,000 cows generate as much manure and urine as 252,000 people, on par with Madison.“ The state tries to regulate the mega-farms and punish violators, but the process is cumbersome.


May 16, 2019

Six charts that tell the story

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 16, 2019, alerted us that “Wisconsin lost 700 dairy farms last year (2018), almost two a day” and asked why? It showed six charts that tell this fundamental story: Consumption down, production up, prices down.


May 13, 2019

Photo History of Wisconsin’s dairy industry

On May 13, 2019, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel presented a delightful compendium of 62 photos reflecting the state’s dairy history from 1864 to 2019. The images show the bug that caused farmers to switch from growing wheat to milking cows; America’s first dairy school at UW; the first glass milk bottle and automatic bottle filler; construction of milk wagons; milk strike pickets; the Bendfelt Ice Cream refrigerated truck and many more. It’s fun to browse these great photos.