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The Dairy Industry in Wisconsin: Past, Present, and Future

Holy Cow! Wisconsin’s dairy industry contributes roughly $45.6 billion dollars to the state’s economy each year. In addition, our dairy industry has a flavorful history dating back to the mid-nineteenth century when dairying emerged as a viable alternative to wheat production. Over the years, the industry thrived thanks to the efforts of pioneers like Charles Rockwell and William Dempster Hoard, as well as the support from the University of Wisconsin. Today, Wisconsin remains the second-largest state in dairy production, continually setting records and adapting to meet the evolving demands of consumers.

The Early Years and University Support

Whey back in 1837, Charles Rockwell, considered one of Wisconsin’s earliest cheesemakers, began producing cheese near Fort Atkinson in Jefferson County. However, it was during the mid-nineteenth century that dairying gained prominence as the profitable alternative to wheat farming after declining soil conditions and pests led to the demise of growing conditions for wheat in that state. William Dempster Hoard then promoted Wisconsin Dairying for over 50 years leading to great success for the industry in Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin School of Agriculture also played a pivotal role in encouraging dairy farming, and its first professor of agriculture, William A. Henry, conducted scientific research to improve dairying methods. Notably, Professor Stephen Babcock developed the Babcock test – the first test for butterfat content in milk, leading to consistent high-quality butter and cheese production. The university also developed bacterial testing which lead to today’s methods of milk pasteurization.

German and Scandinavian Influence

German and Scandinavian immigrant families who settled in Wisconsin also greatly influenced the dairy industry. These families quickly adopted dairying as a profitable farming method. They specialized in European-style cheeses, particularly Swiss cheese, which appealed to consumers. By 1915, Wisconsin had become the leading dairy state in the nation, producing more butter and cheese than any other state.

Changes over Time

Over the past few decades, dairy farming in Wisconsin has undergone significant changes. In 1974, there were 49,770 dairy farms with an average of 38 cows producing 19.2 billion pounds of milk. However, the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has declined to 6,116 herds as of Jan. 1, 2023. Despite the decrease, a record milk production of 31.7 billion pounds was achieved in 2021. Today, each dairy farm averages 212 cows and produces 24,385 pounds of milk per cow. Although the dairy industry has faced challenges, Wisconsin remains a prominent dairy state, adapting to the evolving agricultural landscape.

Current Status and Achievements

Fast forward to 2021, and Wisconsin’s dairy industry continues to flourish. The state produced 31.7 billion pounds of milk, with an increase of 3 percent over the previous year. The number of milk cows reached 1.27 million head, and milk production per cow rose from 24,423 pounds to 24,884 pounds. 

Record-Breaking Cheese Production

In 2021, Wisconsin achieved a record-breaking cheese production year, surpassing the previous record set in 2018. Total cheese production increased by 3 percent to 3.47 billion pounds. Italian cheese production remained steady at 1.65 billion pounds, comprising 47 percent of Wisconsin’s total production. American cheese production rose by 1 percent to 1.08 billion pounds. Furthermore, specialty cheese production saw significant growth, increasing from 795 million pounds in 2020 to 877 million pounds in 2021, accounting for 25 percent of the state’s total cheese production.

Future Prospects and Sustainability

Looking ahead, the future of Wisconsin’s dairy industry appears promising. Sustainability and environmental consciousness have become crucial aspects of modern agriculture. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin are implementing practices to minimize environmental impact, such as improved waste management systems and the use of renewable energy sources. Additionally, technological advancements and genetics research are enhancing breeding programs, leading to healthier and more efficient dairy cows

Milk Producing Cows

Furthermore, Wisconsin’s dairy industry is embracing innovation to cater to changing consumer preferences. Niche and artisanal dairy products are udderly in demand and gaining popularity, with specialty cheese production already accounting for a significant portion of the state’s total cheese production. Dairy processors are also exploring plant-based alternatives to meet the growing demand for non-dairy products.


The dairy industry in Wisconsin has a long and storied history, shaped by dedicated pioneers, university support, and the influence of immigrant families. Today, Wisconsin remains a leader in dairy production, achieving record-breaking cheese production and continuing to adapt to meet consumer demands. As the industry looks to the future, sustainable practices, technological advancements, and innovation will play vital roles in ensuring its continued success. Wisconsin’s dairy industry is gouda and poised to thrive in the years to come, remaining a cornerstone of the state’s agricultural heritage.

If you need more information about dairying in Wisconsin, contact our team of specialists.No matter what your feed and agriculture needs are, Chaseburg Co-Op in Vernon County, WI is your one-stop-shop!