Diving into dairy’s dilemmas

Task force aims to address industry’s needs

Posted on Sep 27, 2019 :: New North
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Wisconsin may be known as America’s Dairyland, but that doesn’t mean its $43 billion dairy industry isn’t without its many challenges — including volatile milk prices and more farmers deciding to sell their herds and exit the industry. A recent plan offered by the Dairy Task Force 2.0 laid out 51 recommendations for supporting and strengthening the state’s dairy industry.

“Like anything, the dairy industry is evolving,” says Moriah Brey, co-owner of Brey Cycle Farm in Sturgeon Bay and a member of the 31-member task force. “We’re not immune to growth and change … this speaks to our continued focus on improvement and adaptability.

“Many of the recommendations have a focus on research and development of new techniques, products and practices. This is of utmost importance to each farm individually and as our industry as a whole strives to remain competitive and relevant.”

The task force, which was made up of dairy farmers, milk processors, lenders and others with an interest in the industry, compiled a 51-page report detailing the issues surrounding the industry, and setting forth recommendations on how to move forward.

“The challenges are real and continue to change,” says Brey, whose farm raises 500 cows, 500 heifers for other farmers and farms about 1,500 acres of feed crops, in addition to raising Angus/Holstein beef cattle for market.

Mark Stephenson, director of Dairy Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, led the task force, which was created last year as a joint effort between the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the UW System. This was the second task force of its kind. In 1985, a similar group was formed to study the issue of increasing milk production. However, this year’s group had a different focus, Stephenson says.

“We’ve got plenty of milk right now,” he says. “It’s about how do we make our rural communities more vibrant. I feel amazingly good about what was done.”

After putting forth and discussing recommendations, the task force ranked them in terms of priority, with No. 1 being a Dairy Innovation Hub, which fuels the UW System — particularly UW-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls — with the necessary dollars to help drive research and train industry leaders to keep the industry moving forward with growth, modernization and innovation.

“A lot of what we take for granted today came from that type of research,” Stephenson says.

Brey agrees investing in education and research is important. “After all, passionate, educated people are the backbone of our industry,” she says.

Investment in human capital was another key recommendation. The group is looking for ways to encourage young people to pursue careers in agriculture, which accounts for about 500,000 jobs in Wisconsin. Still, the task force report says, “rural communities struggle to retain our youth in an industry that requires high levels of science, technology and skills … the goal is to show that local industries, agriculture companies, manufacturers and farms offer highly skilled and technical careers right in their local communities.”

Some other report recommendations include:

• Recognizing the importance of exports. Creating a plan to help cheesemakers produce new products targeted specifically for export markets. The United States only exports about 5 percent of the cheese produced in Wisconsin, according to the report.

• Funding local road improvements and maintenance by setting aside a percentage of the transportation budget to support roads in rural communities.

• Studying the impact of dairy and agriculture on local communities. According to the report, the dairy industry supports one of every 10 jobs in Wisconsin, while the average cow in the state generates about $34,000 of economic activity each year.

• Creating a dairy app to help dairy farmers quickly access important information about the industry.

About 20 of the recommendations are in the process of being implemented.

“We’re thankful that Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland and providing resources and examples for us to learn from as we continue to better our own dairy farm,” Brey says. “The recommendations put forth … will ensure that those resources remain relevant and helpful and Wisconsin remains a leader in all aspects of dairying.”