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Wisconsin dairy industry

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dairy farm in Wisconsin
Dairy farm in Wisconsin

Dairy is a major industry in the state of Wisconsin. The state is widely known for its dairy production, as can be seen with "America's Dairyland" being one of Wisconsin's nicknames.[1]

Dairying in Wisconsin includes the harvesting and processing of animal milk, usually from cows, and the processing into cheese, butter, or other dairy products. Dairy became an important industry in the late-19th century, following the invention of the refrigerated rail car. By 1915, Wisconsin became the leading state for dairy production, only being surpassed by California in 1993.[2] As of 2018, Wisconsin ranks 2nd in the United States in dairy production,[3] with over 7000 dairy farms that produce 2.44 billion pounds (1.11×10^9 kg) of milk per month.[4]


Dairy cows at a Wisconsin family farm
Dairy cows at a Wisconsin family farm

Traditionally, dairy farming in Wisconsin involves family-owned farms.[5] Dairy cows, typically in herds of over 100,[6] are usually kept in a pasture and milked in the barn, two or three times per day. Factory-farms, which are able to have significantly more cows, are becoming increasingly more common in Wisconsin, forcing smaller family farms out of business.[7]


A "cheese cave" used to age cheeses.
A "cheese cave" used to age cheeses.

Cheesemaking has been in Wisconsin since the start of its dairy industry. In the 19th century, much of the milk production went to making cheese, because cheese kept longer than milk or butter. In the latter half of the 19th century, cheese production moved from the farms to specialized factories, resulting in higher quality cheese. In 1921, Wisconsin became the first state to grade cheese by its quality.[8] As of 2020, Wisconsin produces 26% of all cheese in the US, totaling 3.39 billion pounds (1.54×10^9 kg) of cheese in the last year.[9]

Wisconsin cheesemakers produce hundreds of varieties of cheese.[10] Settlers in Wisconsin brought their local cheese varieties with them. Swiss cheese being one of the first, alongside mozzarella and provolone. Some varieties were invented in Wisconsin, including brick and colby cheese.[11] Varieties of cheese produced in Wisconsin include cheddar, muenster, and feta, in which it leads the U.S.[10]


Butter is another common dairy product produced in Wisconsin. The state requires buttermakers to hold a license to produce butter. These rules were created in 1929, in order to prevent substandard product from being sold as Wisconsin butter. As of 2008, Wisconsin produces 22% of butter in the US, totaling 361 million pounds (164×10^6 kg) of butter.[12]


The Wisconsin dairy industry has its start in the latter half of the 19th century. The first farms in Wisconsin exclusively produced wheat. At their peak, Wisconsin farms produced 27 million US bushels (950,000 m3) of wheat. Rapidly, in the 1860s, the wheat farms, began suffering mass soil depletion, and insect infestations, lowering the quality and yield of the crop.[13] During the 1880s, with pressure from the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, farms across the state began switching to producing dairy.[14]

With the invention and widespread use of the refrigerated rail car, this allowed many farms to switch to producing dairy products and raising feed crops instead of wheat.[15] This turned out to be highly successful for these farmers, and by the start of the 20th century, over 90% of farms were involved with the dairy industry.[16]

A worker in a New Glarus cheese factory places a Wisconsin stamp on wheels of cheese (1922)
A worker in a New Glarus cheese factory places a Wisconsin stamp on wheels of cheese (1922)

In 1890, Stephen Babcock from the University of Wisconsin–Madison developed a test to determine the milkfat content.[17] This innovation led to a higher quality of milk and dairy products.[18] By 1915, Wisconsin became the leading state for dairy production, a lead it would maintain until 1993.[14]

In 1895, the Wisconsin legislature prohibited the sale of yellow-colored oleomargarine, fearing that it would disrupt the state's dairy industry.[19] Manufacturers switched to producing pink-colored margarine as a response to the ban. The margarine ban lasted for 75 years, when it was overturned in 1967. Wisconsin was the last state to maintain its oleomargarine ban, the previous being Minnesota, which overturned theirs in 1963.[20] It, however, still remains illegal for restaurants to serve margarine, unless the customer requests for it. While the ban was never enforced, it carried a $6,000 fine.[21]

In 1933, during the Great Depression, there was a series of strikes by Wisconsin dairy farmers in attempt to raise the price of milk. The cooperative group of farmers attempted to coordinate their efforts with larger groups, including the Farmers' Holiday Association. However, the larger groups prematurely ended their strike to avoid losses.[22]

When states, such as California, started to experiment with new factory-farms, they saw great success, compared to Wisconsin's family farms. Throughout the late 20th-century, California dairy production started to grow rapidly, replacing Wisconsin as the leading state for milk production in 1993.[2][23] Many of Wisconsin's family farms have been closing down, due to increased competition from large factory farms.[24] Since 2005, about 50% of the dairy farms have closed,[25] leaving Wisconsin with 7000 dairy farms in 2020.[4]

Rising tariffs on dairy products have also been a major contributor to the decrease in productivity in Wisconsin. In 2018, China and Mexico imposed large tariffs on the US, making it harder for farms to sell their dairy products. Farmers across Wisconsin lost an estimated $40,000 in yearly revenue due to these tariffs.[24] The number of immigrant dairy workers is rising, from 5% in 2000 to 40% in 2010. This increase is due to many farmers looking to increase the size of their herds, which requires more workers.[26]

The COVID-19 pandemic has been another hardship on the Wisconsin dairy industry. As the demand for dairy fell, Wisconsin farmers were forced to dump their excess milk.[27][28] With the loosening of state lockdowns, dairy demand had increased to near pre-pandemic levels. By November 2020, most farms had rebounded from the initial COVID-19 lockdowns.[29]

Cultural significance

1987 Wisconsin license plate
1987 Wisconsin license plate, displaying the farm graphic and "America's Dairyland"

The prominence of the dairy industry in Wisconsin has led to Wisconsin being known as "America's Dairyland".[1] In the 1940s, "America's Dairyland" was printed on the state's license plates, and in 1986 a graphic representing a dairy farm was added to the plate.[30][31] In 1971, the dairy cow was designated as the official state domesticated animal.[32] "Cheeseheads" is used as a nickname for people from Wisconsin or fans of the Green Bay Packers NFL football franchise.[33] Cheese-wedge shaped hats are a common sight at Packers games, especially since 1994.[34] The dairy industry is prominently displayed on Wisconsin's state quarter, which features a round of cheese, head of a Holstein cow, and an ear of corn.[35]

See also


  1. ^ a b Urdang, Laurence (1988). Names and Nicknames of Places and Things. Penguin Group USA. p. 8. ISBN 9780452009073. Archived from the original on September 6, 2015. Retrieved May 25, 2015 – via Google Books. 'America's Dairyland' A nickname of Wisconsin
  2. ^ a b Oncken, John (August 19, 2020). "Dairy farming – still a challenging industry". Wisconsin State Farmer. Archived from the original on October 1, 2020. Retrieved December 2, 2020.
  3. ^ Dairy Business News Team DP (July 15, 2018). "Top Ten Milk Producing States in May 2018". Dairy Business News. Archived from the original on January 22, 2021. Retrieved December 2, 2020.
  4. ^ a b "Our Farms". Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Archived from the original on December 5, 2020. Retrieved December 2, 2020.
  5. ^ Phelps, Nathan. "Most Wisconsin farms listed as 'family-owned' operations". Green Bay Press-Gazette. Retrieved May 19, 2021.
  6. ^ "Wisconsin Monthly Dairy Farms Statistics". Wisconsin Cheese. Retrieved May 19, 2021.
  7. ^ "Industrial dairy farming is taking over in Wisconsin, crowding out family operations and raising environmental concerns". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Archived from the original on November 22, 2020. Retrieved March 23, 2021.
  8. ^ "cheesemaking in Wisconsin". Wisconsin Historical Society. August 3, 2012. Retrieved March 27, 2021.
  9. ^ "DATCP Home Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics". Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Archived from the original on March 27, 2021. Retrieved May 12, 2021.
  10. ^ a b "DATCP Home Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (dba Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin)". Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  11. ^ "About us - Wisconsin Cheese". Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  12. ^ Burns, Jane. "Amid a rise in artisanal butter, state to make it easier to get a buttermaker license". Retrieved May 6, 2021.
  13. ^ Ebling, Walter H. (1931). Wisconsin Dairying. Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Crop and Livestock Reporting Service. pp. 2–3.
  14. ^ a b Brockman, Amber (September 3, 2020). "Dare I Say We're a Dairy State?". The Advance-Titan. University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. Archived from the original on November 29, 2020. Retrieved December 5, 2020.
  15. ^ Trewartha, Glenn Thomas (1924). The Dairy Industry of Wisconsin as a Geographic Adjustment. University of Wisconsin–Madison. Archived from the original on March 31, 2021. Retrieved December 16, 2020 – via Google Books.
  16. ^ "Dairy Industry in Wisconsin". Wisconsin Historical Society. August 3, 2012. Archived from the original on November 11, 2020. Retrieved December 2, 2020.
  17. ^ "Sylvia Deserves Much Credit for the Milk Tester". Lancaster Teller. February 11, 1915. Retrieved April 29, 2021.
  18. ^ Robson, James. "Dairy important to Wisconsin's past, future". Green Bay Press-Gazette. Archived from the original on March 31, 2021. Retrieved March 23, 2021.
  19. ^ Eschner, Kat. "The 1870s Dairy Lobby Turned Margarine Pink So People Would Buy Butter". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved May 18, 2021.
  20. ^ Foran, Chris. "Wisconsin banned selling yellow margarine for 72 years, so residents smuggled it in from Illinois". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved May 17, 2021.
  21. ^ "Wisconsin's wacky butter laws spread over centuries". OnMilwaukee. January 9, 2019. Retrieved May 17, 2021.
  22. ^ Jacobs, Herbert (1951). "The Wisconsin Milk Strikes". The Wisconsin Magazine of History. Vol. 35 no. 1. pp. 30–35. ISSN 0043-6534. JSTOR 4632334.
  23. ^ Barboza, David (June 28, 2001). "America's Cheese State Fights to Stay that Way; Wisconsin Struggles to Keep Pace with West". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on April 17, 2016. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  24. ^ a b Barrett, Rick (February 18, 2020). "'Struggling to Tread Water': Dairy Farmers Are Caught in an Economic System with No Winning Formula". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Archived from the original on December 11, 2020. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  25. ^ "'America's Dairyland': Wisconsin's farmers see bleak future". the Guardian. February 23, 2020. Retrieved May 17, 2021.
  26. ^ Kushner, Jacob (May 26, 2010). "Wisconsin dairy farms are growing — along with their immigrant work forces". Wisconsin Watch. Archived from the original on March 14, 2021. Retrieved March 27, 2021.
  27. ^ Barrett, Rick (April 3, 2020). "Wisconsin Farmers Forced to Dump Milk as Coronavirus Slams a Fragile Dairy Economy". USA Today. Archived from the original on June 1, 2020. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  28. ^ Clauss, Olivia (March 31, 2020). "Dairy Farmers Grapple with Economic Fallout of COVID-19". The Badger Herald. Archived from the original on January 22, 2021. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  29. ^ Alexander, McKenna (November 16, 2020). "COVID-19 Impact on Wisconsin Dairy Farmers". Eau Claire, Wisconsin: WQOW-TV. Archived from the original on November 17, 2020. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  30. ^ Journal, Bill Novak | Wisconsin State. "'America's Dairyland' will stay on Wisconsin license plates, governor says". Retrieved May 6, 2021.
  31. ^ "The Evolution of Wisconsin License Plates". La Crosse County Historical Society. Retrieved May 6, 2021.
  32. ^ "Wisconsin State Domesticated Animal | Dairy Cow". State Symbols USA. Archived from the original on January 22, 2021. Retrieved March 27, 2021.
  33. ^ Kapler, Joseph, Jr. (Spring 2002). "On Wisconsin Icons: When You Say 'Wisconsin', What Do You Say?". The Wisconsin Magazine of History. Vol. 85 no. 3. pp. 18–31. JSTOR 4636969. Archived from the original on December 26, 2018.
  34. ^ "The Big Cheese: Cheesehead inventor profits from insults". Archived from the original on July 14, 2014.
  35. ^ Walters, Steven. "Doyle flips decision, puts cow on quarter". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Archived from the original on March 21, 2007. Retrieved March 30, 2007.

Further reading

This page was last edited on 3 September 2021, at 17:51
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