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Dairy farms drop to 6,533 in Wisconsin

Farm Progress Dairy cows at feeder
MORE COWS PER FARM: Dairy cows in Wisconsin produced 24,408 pounds of milk per cow in 2020, which is a record.
The average farm in the Dairy State has 193 cows.

When I moved to Wisconsin from northern Illinois 45 years ago, there were 49,000 dairy farms in the Dairy State, down from 103,143 dairy farms 20 years earlier in 1957. The average farm family milked 37 cows back in 1977. Most farm labor was provided by dairy farmers and their families, and many families back then were large.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s obvious things in America’s Dairyland have changed quite a bit. According to Greg Bussler, state statistician for the Wisconsin field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin fell to 6,533 herds as of Jan. 1, which is 399 fewer than on Jan. 1 one year ago. While 399 is less than half the number of dairy farms lost in 2019, it means Wisconsin still lost more than one dairy farm per day last year. In 2019, Wisconsin lost 818 dairy farms.

Ten years ago, Wisconsin had 11,761 dairy farms, about 44% more herds than in 2022. Today, farm families are smaller, and dairy farms are much larger than they were 45 years ago.

Record milk production

Wisconsin farmers did produce a record 30.7 billion pounds of milk in 2020, and they are expected to exceed that amount in 2021 when the final numbers for last year are released by NASS later this year. Farmers were milking 1.26 million dairy cows on Jan. 1, 2021, compared to 1.81 million cows 45 years ago.

If you do the math, there is an average of 193 cows on each dairy farm in Wisconsin as of Nov. 1, 2021, and they produced 24,408 pounds of milk per cow in 2020. Note how much cow numbers per farm jumped in the Dairy State in the past five years. In 2017, there were an average of 138 cows on each dairy farm, and they produced 23,725 pounds of milk per cow on 9,304 dairy farms. That means the average dairy farm is milking 55 more cows today than it was just five years ago.

In 1977, Wisconsin cows averaged only 11,676 pounds of milk per cow. They produced 20.3 billion pounds of milk in 1977. In 1957, 2.3 million dairy cows in Wisconsin produced 17.4 billion pounds of milk, which works out to 7,700 pounds per cow.

According to Bussler, as of 2020 (the most recent year statistics are available), the top five milk-producing counties in Wisconsin are:

  1. Manitowoc
  2. Fond du Lac
  3. Clark
  4. Dane
  5. Kewaunee

In 1977, the top five milk-producing counties in Wisconsin were:

  1. Marathon
  2. Dane
  3. Clark
  4. Dodge
  5. Grant

Wisconsin has been keeping track of dairy farm numbers since 1950. At that time, there were 143,000 dairy farms in the state. Today, the state is home to 64,793 farms of all types. The average farm size is 221 acres.

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