America’s Dairyland Since the 2012 and 2017 Agricultural Censuses

Authors: John A Cross*, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Topics: Agricultural Geography, Food Systems, Rural Geography
Keywords: dairying, Amish, Mennonite, Wisconsin, agriculture
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Wisconsin lost 2,506 dairy herds between the 2012 and 2017 agricultural censuses, a decline of 21.7 percent, yet milk production increased. Since the beginning of 2018 Wisconsin’s rate of herd loss accelerated. Between January 1, 2018 and September 1, 2020, Wisconsin lost 1,775 cows milk herds, a 20.2 percent loss, with monthly losses exceeding one percent six times from October 2018 through October 2019. This paper reviews the changes in Wisconsin’s dairying that occurred between the two censuses and then focuses upon those changes that have occurred since the last census.

Changes were experienced differently among three groups of Wisconsin milk producers: (1) small to mid-sized producers who are not Anabaptists; (2) Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite dairy farmers; and (3) mega-dairy operations or dairy Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Between the two censuses the number of both Old Order and CAFO dairy farms increased, while other small to mid-sized dairy operations sharply declined. Distinct spatial patterns of expansion and decline are discerned. Since the 2017 census the total number of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, suffering from low milk prices—often below the cost of production, declining export markets, punitive tariffs, changes in demand by processors, and most recently the pandemic, dramatically contracted. Yet the number of CAFOs has increased, while the number of smaller operators has sharply fallen. Recent responses of Old Order Mennonites and Amish dairy farmers differ, even though both groups had grown in number through 2017.

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