WONEWOC, Wis. — All her cows and heifers have names, and she cries with joy when she witnesses any of them giving birth to a calf. She takes pride in the health of her land that she has nurtured through multiple summer droughts, deep winter freezes and terrifying storms. She isn’t wealthy in the financial sense, but she sees nothing but gold when she looks back at her life.
Just north of Reedsburg amidst man-made lakes and a famous bike trail, Sharon Laubscher, 60, and her husband, David, operate a small dairy farm, which most everyone in Wisconsin knows has become to agriculture what the horse is to transportation and the landline is to communication.
In April, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that America’s Dairyland reached an important milestone when it dropped below 10,000 dairy farms for the first time since such records have been kept for nearly 100 years. The state’s smallest dairy farms with less than 49 cows — once the face of Wisconsin agriculture — are spiraling down toward the 3,000 mark.
The Laubschers are determined not to keep — or give — up with the Joneses. Unlike the grim-faced couple in the American Gothic where the husband is gripping a pitchfork, you’ll find the Laubschers happily holding onto what they love most about their farm that has been in David’s family for 135 years. They use their positive energy to keep them from becoming another small-farm casualty.
“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.”
But that doesn’t mean Laubscher won’t condone the rise of the huge dairy farms that have helped make Wisconsin the cream of the dairy industry, some say at the expense of the small dairy farm as well as the environment. She 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, so Laubscher has studied the immense farms that dwarf her 20-cow, 300-acre operation.
“I don’t judge,” said Laubscher, who has her qualms with the conservation and other practices of some of the mega-operations with 1,000-plus cows but doesn’t lump them all together in one negative heap. 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, one of the state’s staunchest supporters of the dairy industry, 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.”
10 years of growth
June is dairy month, and there certainly 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, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s senior vice president of corporate communications.
It’s a renaissance that is comparable in scope to what the state’s cheese industry enjoyed after it reinvented itself in the midst of an economic crisis in the mid-1990s. Back then, many producers made the bold decision to stop making bulk cheeses so they could create more profitable specialty cheeses that had been the strict 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.
On paper, the milk producers’ approach looks completely different: Much of their success is directly attributed to the growing number of mega-farms with 1,000 or more cows that took advantage of the state’s new livestock facility siting laws in 2006.
There were 44 farms with 1,000-plus cows in the state in 2002, 78 in 2007 and 129 in 2012, according to NASS data. They 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. They’ve also generated plenty of controversy due to problems with poor management at the county and state levels in parts of eastern Wisconsin, copious amounts of manure and other environmental concerns.
Meantime, there is hope that the small dairy farms will continue to survive and create a niche just like many of the state’s cheese producers have done. Some small dairy farmers sell their milk directly to small specialty cheese producers or make the cheese themselves. Carr Valley Cheese gets all of the Laubscher’s milk. Other small dairies promote agritourism by turning their farms into a sort of bed-and-breakfast and others make money through genetics or do just enough to cover expenses.
“Some other states like New York and Missouri that are trying to rebuild their dairy industries are coming to Wisconsin to look at what we’ve done. Part of it is favorable legislation, part of it is farmers themselves with a positive attitude and we’ve turned this thing around a little bit,” said Bob Cropp, professor emeritus at the UW-Madison’s Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics.
It most definitely has gotten the nation’s attention. “They have a lot of progressive thinking up there in Wisconsin,” said John Wilson, senior vice president of Dairy Farmers of America.
More cows, fewer farms
The surge in production starting in 2005 ended a 17-year slump during which production had dipped 11.7 percent after reaching an all-time high of 25 million pounds in 1988, the number of dairy farms dropped 58.4 percent to just over 15,000 and the number of cows dropped 29.8 percent to an all-time low of 1.23 million, NASS data shows.
“Those were some big losses. Even though production per cow was increasing every year, there was a lot of pessimism in the dairy industry, and it just seemed to get worse,” Cropp said.
The downward trend actually started during the Great Depression and has not stopped since the mid-1950s when there were still close to 130,000 dairy farms in the state and 4,400 of them were in Dane County, according to NASS data. Just 263 remained in the county as of April, the data shows.
The state’s smallest dairy farms took the biggest hit during the slump as 18,349 farms with 49 or fewer cows were lost from 1987 to 2007, NASS data shows. After comprising 63.2 percent of all dairy farms in 1987, the state’s smallest farms made up 39.0 percent in 2007 and just 36.7 percent in 2012.
Some were swallowed up by bigger farms, others consolidated with relatives’ farms and became a big family operation, yet others turned to a different kind of farming like grain or raising beef cattle. None of it was hurting the dairy industry or most of the farmers getting out of the business, Cropp said.
The smallest farms’ biggest problem is that most don’t meet today’s standards, and the farmers are too old to take advantage of the tax credits available to modernize, Cropp said. Once they sell, the farms are immediately expanded to take advantage of the latest technology, he added.
Production costs for feed, electricity, repairs, etc., are another problem holding back small dairy farmers. Nationally, NASS data showed that dairy farms with 33 cows have per-cow production costs that are 16 percent higher than farms with 312 cows, 28.8 percent higher than farms with 698 cows and 52 percent higher than farms with 2,260 cows.
“Wisconsin is running 4 percent more milk this year than last year. It’s going strong. We also added about 6,000 more cows. It looks like we’ll surpass 28 billion pounds (in production) this year,” Cropp said. “We’ll also probably lose another 400, 500 farms. But there are very few of these farmers who are going out because they are going bankrupt. They are going to retire.”
‘We’re still here’
The Laubschers aren’t thinking about a big payday when they sell the farm or doing something other than running a dairy. Her husband works full time in Reedsburg to support the farm that has struggled to make ends meet since they lost 10 cows and some heifers recently from a microtoxin issue from bad corn, Laubscher said. She added that he spends his free time in the field, milking or doing all the other jobs needed on a daily basis. Vacations are difficult to schedule.
Those are all prime reasons why many younger farmers choose to go toward wanting bigger, family operations, Cropp said. They are why Laubscher doesn’t want to leave.
Laubscher, who refers to her cows and heifers as “my girls,” weathered the loss of one-third of the herd and appears to have grown closer and loves to spoil the ones who survived.
She hopes somebody in her family takes over the farm after she and her husband retire. In the meantime, she milks her girls twice a day and doesn’t push them to increase production.
“I’m too old to do anything else,” Laubscher said. “I do it because of my grandkids. Our daughter has a small farm, kind of a sport farm, and she loves animals, too. So her kids are here all the time. They’ve seen cows calve. It’s no big deal to them.
“There are city kids who don’t know where milk comes from. My grandkids know where our milk comes from, where our cheese comes from.
“It’s a hard life, but it’s a good living. Sometimes.”
“We’re seeing a renaissance in the dairy industry in Wisconsin.” Patrick Geoghegan, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s senior vice president of corporate communications