Wisconsin No Longer Top Milk Producer


WISCONSIN is losing its status as the nation's dairy land - and it's hard to find anyone here who gives a hoot.

In terms of monthly milk production, California took over the No. 1 spot last August. In terms of annual production, it will almost certainly grab Wisconsin's crown this year.

But dairymen here don't seem stirred up about it.

``It was probably going to happen anyway,'' says Ed Jesse, dairy economist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. ``I don't think most Wisconsin farmers lost any sleep over it.''

The event came a few years earlier than expected because of Wisconsin's poor alfalfa crop last year. The cut in feed forced dairymen to reduce their herd size and the state's milk production isn't expect to start on the way up again until midyear.

Of course, there's more to being the nation's dairy land than milk. Wisconsin boosters say their state makes more cheese (a third of the nation's production) and butter (a quarter of the US total) than anyone else.

Even here trouble looms, however. Last year, Wisconsin lost a handful of cheese factories, continuing a long trend of consolidation. By one count, the state has 1,100 fewer such factories than 40 years ago. And while the remaining industry still produces more cheese, other states are starting to produce the stuff for less.

Beneath the surface, the Wisconsin industry is churning. Dairy farmers are moving to cut costs and improve efficiency, especially as older farmers retire and younger operators take over the reins. An estimated one third of Wisconsin dairy farmers will retire within the next 10 years.

For some of the new-generation operators, improving efficiency means building bigger, more modern operations. Some dairymen are moving to the 600-cow herds more reminiscent of California operations than Wisconsin's typical 55-cow farm.

Other farmers are taking the opposite tack. They are cutting costs and moving to low-input operations.

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