For the first time ever, I attended the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin. America’s Dairyland! With over 74,000 dairy professionals — including over 3,000 international visitors from 100+ countries around the world — it had been on my bucket list for a number of years.
My overall impression was, “Wow!” A very impressive place full of anything and everything you would need to know about all things dairy. Held at the Alliant Energy Center Veterans Memorial Coliseum and surrounding area, you could spend all five days there and still probably not see everything.
And the cows! Oh the cows and heifers were my favorite part, with the top producing animals and award-winning breeds. Of course, I had to stop and snuggle!
I was there helping at the booth for Brightmark Energy. They do anaerobic digestion biogas facilities for larger-scale dairies, which trap methane and turn it into renewable natural gas. I really love the work they do to help make large-scale farms more “green” by recycling methane into something great. (At no cost to farmers!)
I loved working in the booth because it gave me an opportunity to have conversations with dairy farmers and professionals from all around the world, operating farms of all shapes and sizes. Most of the dairy farmers I spoke to were local in Wisconsin, and I always love hearing their opinions on the state of the dairy industry.
It’s no secret the dairy industry (as well as many other agricultural commodities) is struggling greatly right now. With market prices down, farmers have been losing income, and sometimes their farms — at alarming rates. Wisconsin alone has lost over 1,700 dairy farms in the past three years.
And this is where my heart breaks a little. This is where my title “mixed feeling” comes in.
The technology behind large-scale farms is impressive and should be celebrated; however, that was really one of my biggest takeaway from the expo — go big. The big just keep getting bigger. Even USDA Secretary or Agriculture Sonny Perdue received a little heat in the media for his “Go big or go home” sentiments. More on that here.
Is that really what he said though? The media can be quick to make snap judgement reporting, but upon fact checking, the negative heat he received was surely taken out of context. Here is what he actually said:
I believe his full statement rings true, as sad as this may sound to some. When we think of farming, I think we all want to think of the romantic imagery of small scale, backyard agriculture, milking cows the old-fashioned way. So beautiful! I grew up in Wisconsin around these small family farms, so yes … it brings up memories of my childhood and is very nostalgic.
The reality, however, is dairy nowadays is a very tech savvy, forward-thinking industry. My jaw was on the ground at the expo, where expensive robots, data and sensors, and technology reined supreme. How can farmers afford this? Why are some farms being pushed out?
Processing plants also have a lot to do with it. There are larger dairy coops that may only want to make one or two stops to pick up their milk. On the flip side, there are companies like Prairie Farms that pride themselves on only sourcing from numerous small family farms. Prairie Farms is a big company that purchased Swiss Valley, yet their average dairy farm milks only 120 cows. I love seeing my neighbors and friends in my community milk only 50 or 60 cows and still make a living. It really depends on each individual circumstance.
Smaller scale farms can have quite the struggles to make a living, but larger scale farms do, too. I know one man who lost $6 million in the first quarter of this year on his dairies in Idaho, which milk close to 50,000 cows. But when times get tough, he’s still investing and realizes farming is always a gamble. Times can be difficult, but they can also be very profitable in the good years.
Business is business. Every situation is different. But one thing is for certain: There has never been a better time to explain to the average person just how tech savvy modern dairies are. Farmers today are able to take better care of their cows than ever before while having hundreds of data tracking points. They’re using fewer resources, producing more with less.
Ninety-eight percent of farms in the U.S. are family farms, and big certainly doesn’t mean bad. But going big is just the general reality of modern agriculture in America today.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.