It was the last time that dairy cows were milked on our farm.
It was August 2000 and my parents were selling their herd. What began in 1970 with a mixed breed collection of 30 cows had grown into a herd of 65 nearly all-registered Holsteins. Along with the careful breeding program came improvements in milk production and the installation of a pipeline in 1986.
I came to the farm that day to help with the sale. We moved cows from the barn into the sale ring. I watched as years of quality genetics were sold at bargain prices.
It was late afternoon and we milked a few of the cows before they were loaded onto the trailers. One more time I heard the familiar hum of the vacuum pump. One last time I watched the milk flow through the glass jar in the milkhouse into the bulk tank.
With only a few cows to milk, the barn was eerily quiet. The milking units were cleaned. The pump was shut down. A silent sadness hung over the valley.
My parents’ decision to sell their cows was strongly connected to their desire to retire from milking. While it was difficult to see 75 years of farming tradition that dated back to my great-grandfather end, it was also the right decision. Neither my brother or I had an interest in being dairy farmers.
The loss of dairy farms in Wisconsin has been going on for decades. When my great-grandfather was milking cows in 1930, there were 167,000 dairy farms in the state.
When my parents sold their herd in 2000, Wisconsin had dipped under 25,000 herds. In 2017, there were 9,100 herds. Almost 700 dairy farmers quit the business in 2018. As of Jan. 1, 2019, there were 8,110 dairy herds left. We’re now below 8,000.
A big part of the problem is that dairy farmers are too good at producing milk. In 1930, milk production was 11.2 billion pounds. In 2017, it was 30.3 billion. Herds have gotten larger. We have too much milk.
Wisconsin’s agricultural legacy of family dairy farms is dying. Years of low milk prices are taking their toll. Farmers cannot take the financial and emotional stress of working long hours every day of the year knowing that you’re going backward. And the political tariff war was estimated to cost dairy farmers $1 billion in 2018.
All business — and dairy farming is a business — goes through constant change. Markets change. Jobs go away. One need only look at the upheaval in the auto, steel and coal industry. When plants close, communities suffer.
Wisconsin families and our rural communities suffer when dairy farms go out of business. The local feed store, hardware store, banks, grocery stores and schools feel it. The bigger farms can fill the milk production void but cannot replace the local economic impact.
Recently there has been news that some counties are having a hard time finding dairy farms willing to host dairy breakfasts. The annual June events are meant to be a celebration of our dairy industry. But it’s hard to celebrate and spend time and money to host when times are as tough as these.
I wish I had some solutions to our dairy crisis. Milk pricing is a complicated system with many moving parts. Smarter folks are working hard to save the family farm.
But we can all buy more cheese, milk, butter and other dairy products. Our family farms need our support.
Wisconsin will never be the same.