Saving the Family Farm: A Look at Wisconsin's Dairy Industry

Think of all of the people you know. Is at least one of them a dairy farmer? Chances are your answer is yes.

Wisconsin is known as "America's Dairyland." In fact, dairy contributes $26.5 billion to Wisconsin's economy. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board says dairy means more to our state than citrus to Florida and potatoes to Idaho.

Dairy farming is big business and a tradition that goes back centuries, but over time the number of dairy farms in the state has dropped. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, in 2007 there were 14,158 dairy farms. Today, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board says that number is at 11,490. That means our state is losing about 500 dairy farms ever year.

Here in Marathon County, there's been a drop too. The Extension Dairy Agent, Heather Schlesser, says we had around 900 dairy farms just 10 years ago. In the 2012 census, that number dropped to just under 700, and she says since 2012 another roughly 40 to 50 farmers have gotten out of the dairy business, bringing the total today to right around 650. Schlesser said, "I think primarily because of last year's drought. Most of them went through their hay supplies and then the hay price increase, they weren't able to pay for hay so a lot of them got out last year, they just sort of saw the forecast and saw they weren't going to be able to feed the animals."

Then, at the beginning of this year, farmers encountered yet another problem, a pretty big alfalfa kill, which jacks up the price of feeding their herd. Dairy farmers face a long list of struggles every single day on the job, everything from Mother Nature to the price of milk. Schlesser says sometimes those problems become too great, farmers decide it's not worth it anymore. "When they get out of dairy cattle they might have gotten into corn because with corn prices being so high, so they may still be farming but not necessarily dairy farming," she said.

Dairy farmers say the drop in farms over time is concerning. "People aren't understanding this is where their food comes from, and it's the family farms that have produced a very good quality food for America, not that the big farmers aren't doing that, but I think the small farms have just done a really good job at doing that. Without them I think there's going to be a shortage of food," said Marathon County Dairy Farmer, Diane Blaubach.

While it's concerning, Schlesser says, while there's been a drop in dairy farms, the same can't be said for herd size because of the growth of some dairy farms. She said, "We've been able to keep up with cow numbers so as we've been losing farms, other farms have been sort of buying up that cattle and so we're getting larger farms so the cattle numbers are staying consistent."

Coming up on Tuesday on NewsChannel 7 at 5, we'll take a look at these larger dairy farms and why they tend to draw a lot of controversy.

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