Dairy is a major industry in the state of Wisconsin. The state is widely known for its dairy production, as can be seen with "America's Dairyland" being both a nickname and slogan of Wisconsin.
Dairying in Wisconsin includes the harvesting and processing of animal milk, usually from cows, and the processing into cheese, butter, or other dairy products. Dairy became an important industry in the late-19th century, following the invention of the refrigerated rail car. By 1915, Wisconsin became the leading state for dairy production, only being surpassed by California in 1993. As of 2018, Wisconsin ranks 2nd in the United States in dairy production, with over 7000 dairy farms that produce 2.44 billion pounds (1.11×109 kg) of milk per month.
Main article: Dairy farming
For much of its history, dairy farming in Wisconsin involved family-owned farms. Dairy cows, typically in herds of over 100, are usually kept in a pasture and milked in the barn, two or three times per day. Milking parlors, milking pipelines, and automated milking, while less common, are found in Wisconsin farms. Many family farms also produce cheese or butter, alongside milk.
Intensive dairy farming, also called factory-farms, are able to have significantly more cows, which has been forcing smaller family farms out of business.
Wisconsin dairies produce a variety of products from processing milk. The most notable are cheese and butter.
Main article: Wisconsin cheese
Cheesemaking has been in Wisconsin since the start of its dairy industry. In the 19th century, much of the milk production went to making cheese, because cheese kept longer than milk or butter. In the latter half of the 19th century, cheese production moved from the farms to specialized factories, resulting in higher quality cheese. In 1921, Wisconsin became the first state to grade cheese by its quality. As of 2020, Wisconsin produces 26% of all cheese in the US, totaling 3.39 billion pounds (1.54×109 kg) of cheese in the last year.
Wisconsin cheesemakers produce hundreds of varieties of cheese. Settlers in Wisconsin brought their local cheese varieties with them. Swiss cheese being one of the first, alongside mozzarella and provolone. Some varieties were invented in Wisconsin, including brick and colby cheese. Varieties of cheese produced in Wisconsin include cheddar, muenster, and feta, in which it leads the US Within Wisconsin, mozzarella accounts for 31% of all cheese produced, with cheddar being at 21%.
Wisconsin requires cheese production to be performed or supervised by a licensed cheesemaker, being the only state in the US to require certification. The state also requires cheese sold to be graded for its quality, ranging from grade A to grade D. Producers must also label the age, moisture, and milkfat content.
Butter is another common dairy product produced in Wisconsin. As of 2008, Wisconsin produces 22% of butter in the US, totaling 361 million pounds (164×106 kg) of butter. Wisconsin requires buttermakers to hold a license to produce butter, also being the only state in the US to require certification.
The Wisconsin dairy industry has its start in the latter half of the 19th century. The first farms in Wisconsin exclusively produced wheat. At their peak, Wisconsin farms produced 27 million US bushels (950,000 m3) of wheat. Rapidly, in the 1860s, the wheat farms, began suffering mass soil depletion, and insect infestations, lowering the quality and yield of the crop. During the 1880s, with pressure from the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, farms across the state began switching to producing dairy.
With the invention and widespread use of the refrigerated rail car, this allowed many farms to switch to producing dairy products and raising feed crops instead of wheat. This turned out to be highly successful for these farmers, and by the start of the 20th century, over 90% of farms were involved with the dairy industry.
Colby cheese was one of the first cheeses invented in the United States, being created in 1885. It is similar to cheddar, but is processed differently, giving it a unique texture and higher moisture content. The cheese was invented by Joseph Steinwand, and was named after the township of their cheese factory, Colby, Wisconsin.
In 1890, Stephen Babcock from the University of Wisconsin–Madison developed a test to determine the milkfat content. This innovation led to a higher quality of milk and dairy products. By 1915, Wisconsin became the leading state for dairy production, a lead it would maintain until 1993.
In 1895, the Wisconsin legislature prohibited the sale of yellow-colored oleomargarine, fearing that it would disrupt the state's dairy industry. Manufacturers switched to producing pink-colored margarine as a response to the ban. The margarine ban lasted for 75 years, when it was overturned in 1967. Wisconsin was the last state to maintain its oleomargarine ban, the previous being Minnesota, which overturned theirs in 1963. It, however, still remains illegal for restaurants to serve margarine, unless the customer requests for it. While the ban was never enforced, it carried a $6,000 fine.
The state requires all butter and cheese makers to hold a license. These rules were created in 1929, in order to prevent the amount of substandard product in Wisconsin.
In 1933, during the Great Depression, there was a series of strikes by Wisconsin dairy farmers in attempt to raise the price of milk. The cooperative group of farmers attempted to coordinate their efforts with larger groups, including the Farmers' Holiday Association. However, the larger groups prematurely ended their strike to avoid losses.
When states, such as California, started to experiment with new factory-farms, they saw great success, compared to Wisconsin's family farms. Throughout the late 20th-century, California dairy production started to grow rapidly, replacing Wisconsin as the leading state for milk production in 1993. Many of Wisconsin's family farms have been closing down, due to increased competition from large factory farms. Since 2005, about 50% of the dairy farms have closed, leaving Wisconsin with 7000 dairy farms in 2020.
Rising tariffs on dairy products have also been a major contributor to the decrease in productivity in Wisconsin. In 2018, China and Mexico imposed large tariffs on the US, making it harder for farms to sell their dairy products. Farmers across Wisconsin lost an estimated $40,000 in yearly revenue due to these tariffs. The number of immigrant dairy workers is rising, from 5% in 2000 to 40% in 2010. This increase is due to many farmers looking to increase the size of their herds, which requires more workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been another hardship on the Wisconsin dairy industry. As the demand for dairy fell, Wisconsin farmers were forced to dump their excess milk. As states loosened lockdowns, dairy demand had increased to near pre-pandemic levels. By November 2020, most farms had rebounded from the initial COVID-19 lockdowns.
The prominence of the dairy industry in Wisconsin has led to Wisconsin being known as "America's Dairyland", which was made the official state slogan in 1940. After it was designated as Wisconsin's official slogan, "America's Dairyland" was printed on the state's license plates, at first replacing the "Wisconsin" text, but later both were included. In 1986 a graphic representing a dairy farm was added to the plate.
In 1971, the dairy cow was designated as the official state domesticated animal. Milk was designated as the official state beverage in 1987. Every year since 1967, Madison has held the World Dairy Expo: a five day-event showcasing the dairy industry, ranging from dairy cattle to ice cream.
"Cheeseheads" is a nickname for people from Wisconsin or fans of the Green Bay Packers NFL football franchise. Cheese-wedge shaped hats are a common sight at Packers games, especially since 1994. The dairy industry is prominently displayed on Wisconsin's state quarter, which features a round of cheese, head of a Holstein cow, and an ear of corn.
'America's Dairyland' A nickname of Wisconsin
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