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Wisconsin sees decline in number of dairy farms

Cows at a dairy farm, Prosser Farms, owned by Tim Prosser and his father, John, in Columbus, Wis., on April 19, 2017. (Associated Press)
Cows at a dairy farm, Prosser Farms, owned by Tim Prosser and his father, John, in Columbus, Wis., on April 19, 2017. (Associated Press)
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. – While the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin is shrinking as small operations struggle to remain profitable, expanding commercial farms have continued to increase the state’s milk production.

Numbers from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection show the state lost 500 dairy farms last year, Wisconsin Public Radio reported . Wisconsin’s dairy numbers have fallen more than 20 percent over the last five years. Just over 8,800 dairy herds were licensed in the state at the beginning of this year.

“The growth is really in the medium- to large-size dairy operations,” said Steven Deller, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The growth in those sectors and the increase in productivity of being a bigger operation, the volume of milk is actually not being affected by this.”

It’s difficult for small-scale dairy farms to be profitable, so the number of commercial farms will probably continue to decrease, Deller said. Farms that aren’t profitable don’t contribute to the local economy, he said.

“Do you want to have 10 small farms that are producing poverty level jobs or income levels, or do you want to have one big farm that pays decent wages? From the point of view from the local economy, you want that one bigger operation,” Deller said.

But fewer farms could hurt rural communities, said Kevin Bernhardt, a UW-Platteville agribusiness professor.

“Less farms, less number of kids going to schools, less number of people who are buying inputs and so forth, less number of people to serve on school boards and church councils, etc.,” Bernhardt said. “Less farms out there is not necessarily all negative, but it certainly has impacts on the rural community.”

Small producers can tap into the growing interest in local food and specialty crops instead, Deller said.

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