Dairy Industry

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The Dairy Industry is an important economic and historical factor of Wisconsin as it is known as America's dairy land. It even says it on their license plate. As a Midwestern state, Wisconsin has enough rural land for cattle and farmers to be able to produce a massive amount of dairy products. Times have changed and so has American consumerism, so there has also been a change in the consumption of dairy and dairy products.

Wisconsin's Agricultural History

In the 19th century, Wisconsin produced about one-sixth of the nation’s wheat. [1] When the first settlers arrived in Wisconsin they came from New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, to cultivate farmland. Agriculture is where it all began, and the economic account of agriculture began with wheat production. The farmers mostly grew wheat out of habit as they and their families farmed it as a tradition more than out of economic reasons. Wheat could easily be stored, furthermore, the crop was easily sowed, and did not require a lot of maintenance so it could be ignored until it was time to harvest it. Wheat was an early favorite of the state, especially since it brought good prices in the 1850s and early 1860s.[2] Wheat production grew and changed over time. Innovations in harvesting machinery was made and due to mass manufacturing, easier available for farmers to increase their production. In the 19th century, especially from 1840 to 1880, the state of Wisconsin produced about one-sixth of the nation’s wheat.[3] Wisconsin’s wheat production peaked during the “golden year” of 1860. By that year the state produced over 27 million bushels[4] but after that, the wheat production steadily decreased due to various reasons. The soil was depleted of its nutrients, pests and various plant diseases decreased the wheat production hence the price declined.[5] Just one decade later, especially in southern Wisconsin, a more diverse type of farming developed. Farmers now produced corn, oats and hay. While the produce of these plants rose, the wheat production declined by almost 4 million bushels from 1860 to 1879.[6]

History of Dairy Industry in Wisconsin

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Since the late 1860s, wheat production declined, a change in farming was a necessary new step for farmers in Wisconsin. In 1872 the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association was formed. They tried to convince farmers to switch from crop production to dairying even though there was no established demand for dairy yet. There was a market to establish first since the demand for creameries and cheese factories was not existent. Besides that, the milk supply was not reliable yet which made setting up a market even more difficult. In the 1880s commercial cheese factories and creameries produced most of the states dairy produce. Farm management improved by using scientific principles of feeding and breeding cattle. The farming business increased as its costs decreased while farmers maximize their profit. “It is interesting to learn that Wisconsin dairy farmers tried to meet their problems through better business methods. Dairymen, for example, did not have much faith in the Populist solutions to agriculture's ills and relied more heavily on education, science, and improved farm practices to solve their difficulties. They did turn to government for protection against the competition of oleomargine, but free silver and government ownership of railroads seemed to have had little appeal for them. Rather than turning to party politics, dairymen used the techniques of modern business lobbies to achieve their objectives.”

In 1841 the first official Wisconsin cheese was created and in the 1890s the first dairy school in the United States was established at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Just 40 years later, in 1930, Wisconsin earned the title “America’s Dairyland” which was added to the Wisconsin license plate in 1939.

Dairy Consumption In The Past

In the past dairy by-products were used to feed swine (44%), calves (38%), poultry (14%) and had other uses (6%). So there was not only a demand for human consumption, but also the need of dairy to feed other farm animals.

Current Dairy Industry in Wisconsin

Today dairy is still an enormous economic factor for the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s dairy industry provides jobs, food and public services to the state and contributes 43.4 billion dollars to the state’s economy. Furthermore, due to population growth, the consumption of dairy has also risen. Nevertheless, in 1993, California became the lead dairy state due to their larger herd sizes and a rise of their milk production. But if Wisconsin was its own country, it would rank fourth in cheese production in the whole world. Overall, the North American dairy market recorded weak growth during 2012-2016. There is promising possibility that the growth rate will accelerate over the forecast period 2016-2021.[7]

Current Dairy Consumption

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Wisconsin Agricultural Service, U.S.D.A. National Agricultural Service, and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection gather information and facts about the dairy Industry in Wisconsin today. Wisconsin’s dairy industry provides jobs, food and public services to the state and contributes 43.4 billion dollars to the state’s economy. The gathered information about the industry includes a look at the farms, the produce of milk and cheese, the amount of dairy cows and the percentage of milk production. The state of Wisconsin has 9,520 licensed dairy farms which in 2012 were to 96 percent family owned. There are 1,279,000 dairy cows in Wisconsin that produce 2,739 gallons of milk per cow each year. Wisconsin dairy farms produce 3,167,495,000 pounds of cheese which is a total of 26.2 percent of the nations total cheese production. Between 2006 and 2016 the milk production of the state increased by 28.7 and the cheese production by 29.1 percent. Currently, cheese is the big seller when it comes to dairy products with liquid milk coming in second.

In 2018, the average number of dairy cows per farm was 147 with a monthly production of 237 gallons (2,040 pounds) of milk per cow. The total monthly milk production was 2.60 billion pounds produced from the 1,274,000 total number of dairy cows in Wisconsin. [8]

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Problems Within the Dairy Industry

A major issue within the dairy industry is the plummeting in milk sales and consumption. Americans, on average, drink 37 percent less milk today than they did in 1970. Forty years ago, per capita consumption was nearly one and a half cups per day; now it's nearer to 0.8. [9] From these low sale numbers, farmers are losing their farms and farmer suicide is on the rise to escape the stress and hardship of possibly losing their livelihoods. Also, local farmers are dealing with a major issue of a trade dispute between Wisconsin and Canada.

Milk in a Downtrend

What is causing this decline is the wide variety of other beverages such as energy drinks, soft drinks, coffee, and milk substitutes that are readily available. The biggest non-milk drinkers are children and teenagers. Now a days, parents are not pushing their kids to drink a glass or two of milk like they did in the 1970s. People are afraid that milk is a cause in the childhood obesity issue. Plus, Americans no longer need milk for Vitamin D and calcium, since they can be found in the form of pills, nutritional bars, and healthy juices. It's not clear if milk is all that useful in the way of bone development. Or if we're even all that well-equipped to digest it, since over half of all Americans suffer from lactose intolerance. [10] The sad excuse people use is they think milk is becoming too expensive, but farmers need to make a living too. If the milk prices are a little higher than they were, that means farmers are making more of a profit and can stay afloat in the declining economy we live in. When milk prices get too low, farmers end up filing bankruptcy and lose their farms, which is not helping the economy. We lose family farms and tradition this way and suicide numbers rise because farmers cannot bear the thought of losing their livelihood. Americans need to stop thinking of themselves and realize what is at stake when they don't use milk.

Farmer Suicide

Farmer suicide is on the rise. This is an increasing trend here, but has been a high number throughout the rest of the world also. Farming is a high stressed career because many of the factors involved with farming is out of the farmers hands. They rely on nature, which is not all that kind, most of the time. Recently, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that people working in agriculture – including farmers, farm laborers, ranchers, fishers, and lumber harvesters – take their lives at a rate higher than any other occupation. The data suggested that the suicide rate for agricultural workers in 17 states was nearly five times higher compared with that in the general population. [11] The surprising fact is farmer suicides have doubled the number of military veteran suicides, but no one can really tell the exact number because many farmers cover up their suicides by making it look like a farming accident. We have a real pandemic on our hands and it is because of the low profits from milk because people are not buying it and farmers have to file bankruptcy losing everything they have known.

Trade Dispute

Many dairy farms here in Wisconsin, and some in other states, lost the ability to sell their milk. Grassland Dairy Products in Greenwood, WI. The reason for this issue is from the U.S-Canada trade dispute over what’s called “ultra-filtered milk,” a protein liquid concentrate used to make cheese. Grassland said it lost its Canadian business when Canada changed its dairy policies to favor domestic milk over a supply from the U.S. [12] Because of this dispute, farmers are losing everything because they cannot get rid of their milk. Small family farms are disappearing and struggling to stay afloat. Thankfully other companies have stepped up and taken on new customers to help the farms stay in business. This is just one reason contributing to the rise of farmer suicides. There are actually lives at stake here, but big corporations do not see the pain and trouble they make when a profit is on the line.


Wisconsin went from being a state reliant on wheat to the number one supplier of dairy of the United States. It is called America’s Dairyland for a reason after all. With an increase in dairy consumption, and an increase of its production followed to keep up with the growing demand. Dairy farming has a long history and had to overcome some obstacles to become as important as it is right now. Population growth and the change of times reflect on the change of dairying. Remarkable of that is to see how progressive Wisconsin’s dairy farmers were when they started out. The use of modern science and business techniques to establish an industry and make it become one of the biggest in the world is a real success story. Of course, the consumption of dairy has changed over time but the industry is still a heavily important part of Wisconsin’s economy and will be for a long time.

Wisconsinites and all Americans need to start thinking about the future of dairy and how much we affect farmers. Instead of using milk substitutes, we need to get back to drinking the real thing. There are a lot of health benefits to milk, but people do not realize it's full potential. This article was hopefully informative to show the impact regular people have the whole economy and other's livlihoods.


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
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  6. [6]
  7. "Dairy Industry Profile: North America," Dairy Industry Profile: North America, June 2017, pp. 7, https://ezproxy.uwgb.edu:2443/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=bth&AN=123724102&site=ehost-live&scope=site
  8. "Farm & Dairy Statistics," Wisconsin Cheese, Accessed 2017-05-01, http://www.eatwisconsincheese.com/media/facts-stats/farm-dairy-statistics
  9. Roberto A. Ferdman, "The mysterious case of America's plummeting milk consumption," The Washington Post, June 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/06/20/the-mysterious-case-of-americas-plummeting-milk-consumption/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a1e1f7a969e4
  10. Roberto A. Ferdman, "The mysterious case of America's plummeting milk consumption," The Washington Post, June 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/06/20/the-mysterious-case-of-americas-plummeting-milk-consumption/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a1e1f7a969e4
  11. "Why are America's farmers killing themselves in record numbers?" The Guardian, December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/06/why-are-americas-farmers-killing-themselves-in-record-numbers
  12. Rick Barrett, "Dozens of Wisconsin dairy farms could be forced out of business because of trade dispute," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 2017, https://www.jsonline.com/story/money/business/2017/04/05/wisconsin-dairy-farmers-shut-out-canadian-market/100087448/

The Rise of Dairy Farming (Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin 2015), accessed November 30th, 2017) https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-028/?action=more_essay

Change in America's Dairyland (Geographical Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Oct. 2001), pp. 702-714), accessed November 30th, 2017) http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3594727.pdf

Article History

Format: Strej11 (2017-11-30);