Wisconsin dairy industry booming despite record-low farm count

We call Wisconsin \"the Dairy State\" with pride, but for the first time in more than 60 years the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin dropped below 10,000. The state lost 475 farms in 2014, dropping the total to 9,929 dairy farms.

The numbers sound alarming, especially when you consider Wisconsin had more than 140,000 dairy farms during World War II. But instead of panicking, the ag industry is embracing the trend saying it's actually a sign dairy production is doing well.

Farmers like Daphne and Lloyd Holterman say their herd is a prime example of that.

\"Once you're an agriculturist, that just sticks with you for the rest of your life,\" Daphne holterman told CBS-58 News Friday morning.

The Watertown farmer loves her job, co-owning Rosy-Lane Holsteins with Lloyd for 34 years.

\"The people that started farming, a lot of them are still here,\" Holterman said. \"Some do leave occasionally, mostly because they age out, move on and don't have anyone to come in as a second generation.\"

Not so with the Holtermans, who grew Lloyd's family farm from 75 cows to nearly 950 today.

\"We're taking good care of our cows, they have better genetic potential so they can give us more milk when we care for them properly and that's just a positive for everyone,\" Holterman said.

It's a trend that's developed for decades across the state: fewer farmers able to take on more cows and get more out of them.

\"When I look back to when I was a dairy farmer and how dairy farmers are operating today, there's a night and day difference,\" Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) ag development administrator Daniel Smith said.

Smith says even though there are 40,000 fewer dairy farms in Wisconsin than there were in 1974, farmers still produced a record 27.7 billion pounds of milk in 2014. That puts Wisconsin firmly in second place nationwide behind California.

\"We have fewer people specializing in actually producing the milk, but actually when you look at the whole industry and the health of the whole industry in Wisconsin, it's probably better than it ever has been,\" Smith said.

Smith points to better technology -- including faster and more efficient milking systems, genetic advancements and better equipment -- allowing farmers to manage larger herds, something the Holtermans have embraced. But still, the average herd size in Wisconsin is just 130 cows and 99 percent of farms are family-owned. That's a mix of large and small farms Daphne hopes continues.

\"It's the diversity of farms in our state that make things run smoothly, I think,\" Holterman said. \"You need all kinds, different kinds of farmers to make agriculture a success.\"

Smith doesn't see Wisconsin losing too many farms in the future because the demand for milk is very high, both in Wisconsin and across the world. Smith adds that while some farms seem huge (sometimes 2,000 or 3,000 cows), often times they're still family-farms where different generations have merged their herds.

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