Wisconsin dairy farm closures hit three-year high

Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 6:56 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - After owning and operating a dairy farm in Sauk County for over 100 years, across five generations, the Reisinger family sold their cows in 2021.

“It does feel like something was taken from you,” Brian Reisinger said.

The day the cows departed, Brian Reisinger said the cows gave more milk than they ever had before.

“I think they maybe knew they were going down the road,” Reisinger said.

Rather than selling the whole farm, the Reisinger’s transitioned from milking cows to raising heifers and planting cash crops. This is a part of a larger Dairyland trend.

“In general, the farms that have been exiting tend to be a bit on the smaller side. The farms that are growing tend to be the farms that are kind of the bigger farms,” Chuck Nicholson, an associate professor with the Dairy Innovation Hub at UW Madison, said.

Wisconsin has lost nearly 10,000 dairy farms over the past 20 years, according to Nicholson. In data released last month, the National Agricultural Statistics Service says more than 400 dairy farms in Wisconsin shut down last year. That marks a three-year high in dairy farm losses.

“It’s not exactly a small versus large kind of issue,” Nicholson said. Smaller farms are increasingly shifting away from dairy, being absorbed by bigger farms or closing all together.

Meanwhile, larger farms can spread their fixed costs, like facilities and equipment, over a larger number of cows, Nicholson explained. Making their costs lower and their margins better.

Beyond economics, shifting demographics have played a role in Wisconsin’s changing landscape. The average age for a farmer in Wisconsin is 55, and not every farmers’ children want to take over. Having a second generation willing to carry on the business is one thing Janet Clark says has kept her smaller family farm alive.

“A lot of the farms don’t have the next generation like my parents had the benefit of,” Clark, the second-generation owner of Vision Aires Farms in Fond du Lac, said.

Regardless of how the state got here, Reisinger said losing small farms impacts Wisconsin’s culture.

“It’s a big part of who we are as Wisconsinites,” Reisinger said. “So as you lose that, you do end up losing a piece of yourself.”

Nicholson said theses industry changes likely won’t impact grocery store shelves. Milk production has increased as bigger farms expand.

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