Small dairy farms are struggling in Wisconsin, but supporters are hoping for a comeback.
In April, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that Wisconsin dropped below 10,000 dairy farms for the first time since such records have been kept — nearly 100 years. The state's smallest dairy farms with less than 49 cows are spiraling down toward the 3,000 mark.
But supporters hope small dairy farms in Wisconsin will continue to survive and create a niche just like many of the state's cheese producers have done, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday.
June is dairy month, and there is reason to celebrate in Wisconsin. Since records have been kept starting in 1924, the industry's 10 straight years of production growth that started at the end of 2004 has been matched just once — from 1973 to 1983. Milk production has increased 25.9 percent — to a record 27.8 billion pounds in 2014 — during the most recent streak, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
"We're seeing a renaissance in the dairy industry in Wisconsin," said Patrick Geoghegan, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Wisconsin's cheese industry enjoyed a similar renaissance after it reinvented itself in the midst of an economic crisis in the mid-1990s. Back then, many producers decided to stop making bulk cheeses so they could create more profitable specialty cheeses that had been the domain of European artisans. Today, some can't make enough cheese to meet demands, so an improved dairy industry that sells 90 percent of its milk for Wisconsin-made cheese has been a boost for them.
Much of milk producers' success is attributed to the growing number of mega-farms with 1,000 or more cows that took advantage of Wisconsin's new livestock facility siting laws in 2006, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
There were 44 farms with 1,000-plus cows in Wisconsin in 2002, 78 in 2007 and 129 in 2012, according to NASS data. Those farms generated 13.8 percent ($627 million) of the state's milk sales in 2007 and 22.9 percent ($1.1 billion) of all milk sales in 2012 — even though they represented just 1.2 percent of the state's dairy farms, the data shows.
Just north of Reedsburg, Sharon Laubscher, 60, and her husband, David, operate a small dairy farm. The couple is determined to hold onto the farm that has been in David's family for 135 years.
"I don't think I could ever get myself to let it go that way," Sharon Laubscher said. "I certainly hope that doesn't happen."
Sharon Laubscher was just re-elected to a fourth term as director on the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and is a former two-term member of the National Dairy Board. She has studied the immense farms that dwarf her 20-cow, 300-acre operation.
"I don't judge," said Laubscher, who does have her qualms about the conservation and other practices of some of the mega-operations with 1,000-plus cows. But she says she understands how they have played a huge, and positive, role in helping Wisconsin's dairy industry generate $43 billion for the state's economy in 2014.
Laubscher also remains optimistic about the future of the small dairy farm in Wisconsin.
"I do believe there's still a place for the small dairy farm here," she said. "We can't forget where it all started."