By Shirley Chapman
In Wisconsin, the free-fall in cow numbers and milk production finally stopped in 2005. During the past decade, cow numbers have increased by 25,000 (2%), and milk production has climbed more than 5 billion pounds, nearly 25%.
The Wisconsin dairy industry has changed, says Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin. Dairies grew in size, as did the acres farmed. By growing enough forages to feed their cows, producers insulate themselves from the huge price swings that can occur when purchasing feed.
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On the processing side, more value-added specialty and artisan cheeses have largely replaced the commodity cheeses produced before. Now the increase in milk production helps processors meet growing consumer demand for these products. Overall, producers and processors are optimistic—even excited about the future. Here’s why.
Strengths. Good soils, abundant high-quality water and a climate that favors dairy production. Stephenson says, "High-producing cows today are like high-functioning athletes." The cooler climate allows cows to dissipate the extra body heat produced by their higher metabolism.
All of the stakeholders—producers, processors, allied industries, university experts, state and local governments and regulators—have worked together to revitalize the industry and chart a path for the future.
This cooperative effort has led to policy changes, regulatory reform, tax incentives and
financial assistance programs that have helped producers and processors grow their businesses.
Communities generally support the dairy industry. They understand the value it brings to the state and the jobs it brings to rural areas. Strong producer organizations, such as the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and the Dairy Business Association of Wisconsin, continue to educate and support dairy producers.
The people in this industry are upbeat, resilient and have a "can do" attitude. And it is that attitude, says Stephenson, which will continue to move the industry forward.
Weaknesses. Prices of land have risen recently. Among the Top 10 dairy states, Wisconsin ranks fourth in average cost of farm real estate. Producers who want to build large dairies can have difficulty finding large-enough tracts of land to grow the forages needed to support more cows. Therefore, growth tends to be more incremental.
Opportunities. One look at the aggregated farm balance sheet for the state of Wisconsin shows that dairy producers are in good shape, Stephenson says. They have low debt, and they have collateral. The milk price forecast is favorable, and processors could use more milk to meet growing demand of value-added products. Wisconsin producers are in a good position to expand.
The state supports land-grant universities and the research they do to advance agriculture. The Center for Dairy Research and the Center for Dairy Profitability have played key roles in providing research and support to help cheesemakers and producers alike grow and overcome problems.
Threats. Larger dairies mean larger trucks and equipment on the roads. Large, loaded manure tankers can sometimes exceed the weight limit on some roads. This creates more wear and tear on the roads and could lead to more restrictions in the future.
Manure spills on roads were front-page news last year in Dane County. Such spills can make the public wary about large dairies. For expansion to continue, the public needs to have confidence in producers’ ability to manage manure and environmental resources.
Immigrant workers are a critical source of labor in agriculture. Producers in Wisconsin have seen limited action from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but loss of this vital labor source is a primary concern.