In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Ben Brancel talks about the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin.
How is the dairy industry in Wisconsin doing right now?
The dairy industry, depending on what aspect of it you look at, is doing exceedingly well or it is being challenged. If you look at the number of dairy farms we have, we are a little over 9500 dairy farms. We have increased the number of dairy farms in relation to the national numbers up to 20%. Years ago when we had 140,000 dairy farms, we only had 4% of the nation’s dairy farms. Now we have 20%, so you can see how the numbers have changed over time. In Wisconsin we still rely on the dairy farm to provide our economic engine. We have as many people as ever working in the dairy industry. We have, what is estimated by the UW economists, 78,900+ people who get jobs related to the dairy industry. Our dairies, no matter what shape or size, are predominately owned by families. We estimated that 96% of all our dairy farms are family owned.
On the cheese-making side, which we have been recognized as being extra special in the world, we have 1200 licensed cheesemakers. Many states don’t even license their cheesemakers, but we do to make sure the quality of our cheese is maintained. In fact, it has not only been maintained it has been enhanced over time by the work of the Center for Dairy Research, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the Cheesemakers Association, and the Dairy Products Association. They have all worked together with DATCP on quality, food safety, and delivery systems. We have more varieties of cheese created here in the State of Wisconsin, 600 different types and styles of cheeses, than they even do in France. We have UW River Falls and UW Madison which both focus on educating the next generation of dairy processors and people working in the food systems.
If you talk about the price of milk at the present time it is substantially lower than it was a couple of years ago. In fact, the price is probably 40-45% under what it was when it was at its top. Monetarily it is really challenging the dairy farmers out there that milk prices are as low as they are. Financially the dairy farmers are very challenged currently.
The National Dairy Federation and the US Dairy Council have a letter about the tariffs on milk imported from the United States. What can you tell me about that?
Well as everyone is aware, we work diligently at international trade. Part of our work here is to make sure we recognize barriers or challenges. In Canada, we find them to be our largest ag trading partner, and our 2nd largest partner for dairy trade. Recently in the province of Ontario, they have changed some of the methodologies for the pricing of their home products, as well as creating ingredient lists for products you can use in your processing activities in Canada. We send ultra-filtered milk to Canada, and have for many years. It is used in their cheese processing industry. It has become a relatively valuable product for us to export to Canada. They changed the eligible use of that product to one that they prefer their cheesemakers not use in the processing of cheese. Which means it is difficult for us to market the product into Canada. Which means it is a product that we used to sell, that will be more difficult to sell in the future to one of our largest trading partners. We have worked with US Dairy Export Counsel and the US Trade Office to recognize this issue, and to ask Canada’s national government to reconsider what we see as a new trade barrier for dairy products. We will see where this goes. We have talked to our partners in Washington, D.C. to ask them to engage actively and aggressively on this topic.
How are dairy farms changing in Wisconsin?
We have an increase in the number of farms going organic; in organic production and organic dairy. We have a given set of farms, that are engaged in grazing operations and are focused on specialty markets. Then we have a another set of farms that have increased in size, some by partnering up with neighbors farming together. It used to be that when a father had children who wanted to farm they would go out separately. Now, farms are getting larger so they can bring family members into their own operation. The average size farm in Wisconsin has about 130 dairy cows on it.
What are some of the organic farms in Wisconsin?
There is one that is local that people are quite familiar with – Sassy Cow. Sassy Cow has both an organic operation, and one that I would call more conventional. Sassy Cow produces and processes its own products. They access the market place with organic products directly. Organic Valley is not the only organic company. Organic Valley is very large and is very significant to our state, but it’s not the only place for an organic dairy farmer to market their milk. Sassy Cow is an interesting operation, it is a family farm but employs a lot of people both through its processing and marketing activities with an organic focus.
How do the transportation issues in Wisconsin affect the dairy industry?
When we have cheesemakers putting up facilities, they need to be able to receive milk and ship out final products. Some of those cheesemakers are in rural areas. Those rural roads that connect them to farms need to be maintained. I have not heard from any of them that it is an issue at this point, but it is one they are always concerned with. I have not heard the dairy industry say they are currently challenged, but it is an issue that is always on their minds. Rural Wisconsin is where the milk is produced and where you have to pick it up, and that’s where you have some challenges with bridges and culverts and road quality.
How are the milk trucks regulated for the road?
We changed our rules at DACTP about a year or two ago. We used to say that when a milk truck got to your farm they had to take all of your milk, they could not leave any milk behind. In today’s climate might have caused some trucks to be loaded heavier than the weight restrictions. So, it was causing problems because those trucks are big but they still have restrictions on them. We changed our rules so now a milk truck can choose to pick up only part of the milk in the bulk cooler and leave the rest behind to stay under weight restrictions. They must remove all of the milk though over a certain period of time, they can’t do that day after day. In general, we worked to try to make sure our rules help transportation challenges and meet those weight restrictions that are placed on the dairy trucks.
There are some dairy farmers who have expressed concerns over the immigration rules and what changes could be ahead. Is there a challenge for dairy farmers?
This is not a political issue. I have heard from farmers who tell me they are Democrats, I have heard from farmers who tell me they are Republican, that they have tried employment, they have adjusted wages, they have reached out to hiring companies, and they find it challenging to always have employees who are willing to work in a dairy system where they might have split shifts because of the hours. They have hired individuals who want to work, and they are very concerned about immigration laws because many of those individuals have Hispanic heritage. They aren’t sure in the future how immigration laws will change, or how they will be enforced, and whether they will have a work force available that wants to work, is willing to work, and is capable of work.
How are innovation and technology advancing the dairy industry?
Well it is interesting. Many are not aware that we have robotic milkers now. Those are systems that are put into a barn. Usually one milking machine can handle 60-70 cows. Those robotic milkers work automatically with the cows. One of the things we find is the average cow will enter the milking system, be milked and exit the milking system on average 2.4-2.6 time a day. They are computer operated so farmers can review their computer notes to make sure every cow is tended to. If they find a cow that has not entered the milking system they will go look her up and find out if she is active because of her breeding cycle, or if she’s feeling poorly. It is a way for farmers, with smaller operations, to manage their dairy herds so they still have a life and do quality management of their livestock. The technology allows the farmer to sample every cow at every milking. They can test for components in the milk and the temperature of the milk. It will tell the farmer if the temperature of the cow is too high. The farmer will find the saline component of the milk, which varies dependent on the health of the cow.
The other thing that has improved dramatically is ventilation systems. The cows are kept within a comfort level that wasn’t able to be done as accurately as it is today. People might think that it is nice for a cow to stand out on a pasture, but when the temperature gets over 65 degrees the cows start getting uncomfortable. When it gets over 90 degrees, the cows are very uncomfortable. The ventilation systems, and the misting systems, that have been developed increase the cow comfort. Technology has created some real advancement in cow health, cow comfort, and family living opportunities.
What’s the future of the dairy industry in Wisconsin?
I think it is very strong. I don’t know that cow herd numbers will always be at 9500, but Wisconsin’s place in the industry of the U.S. will stay strong. I think even stronger in years to come than it is now. We have always had a strong cheese-making activity here is Wisconsin. I think cheese processors will continue to strive. In the world market place, the name Wisconsin, on cheese is almost a brand. People look for Wisconsin, then they pick their favorite styles. Wisconsin is being recognized as one of the quality cheese-making areas in the world. That will get stronger in the future. As more ethnic communities, the processing community will continue to change and make different products to meet those demands in the future.
I know that prices are not good and farmers are stressed right now. I also know that the price of milk has historically gone up and down. It is a challenge. I have a great deal of faith in the resilience in most of our dairy farmers, and our ability to continue to produce high quality products from our processing community. When you say dairy somewhere in the world in the future, they will still consider Wisconsin the dairy place.