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Wisconsin's Dairy History from Wheat Fields to Cheese

When people think about Wisconsin, most individuals think of the dairy industry, however, that was not always the case.

The cattle industry landed in the U.S. in 1707. Some cows were brought to Wisconsin by the British-American fur trade. Unlike now, these were only beef animals. In 1838 dairy cows were introduced to the state. In the 1850’s and early 1860’s, the wheat industry was much bigger than its dairy counterpart. Not many people were selling dairy to a mass market. Dairy farmers mostly traded with local stores and neighbors and used milk, butter, and cheese in their households.

This changed in the late 1860s when wheat prices fell because wheat producers struggled due to overused land, crop diseases, chinchbug infestation, and lowering prices. This allowed the dairy industry to take off.

By 1867, Wisconsin had 245,000 dairy cows. In 1912, it had 1,460,000! Two years later, Wisconsin was producing four times that amount. By 1916, they were making 3,000,000 pounds of cheese, and a decade after that Wisconsin was producing four times that amount!

Multiple factors contributed to the rise of the dairy industry. For example, the land that could no longer produce wheat which was ideal for cattle, and the fact that most of the people moving to Wisconsin were experienced dairy farmers. Sadly, the quick rise of the dairy industry caused a surplus of cheese in the Midwest market. By 1871, cheese prices had fallen as low as eight cents per pound. Butter prices were just as low. To combat this problem, in February of 1872, the Wisconsin Dairymen's Association was formed. This served as a way for the dairy producers to promote their products to larger markets and talk about innovations. This was beneficial because it secured dairy prices for a long time.

In 1887, the University of Wisconsin opened a dairy school at its College of Agriculture, the first in the country. The school trained new dairy makers and made many innovations, such as the accomplishments of Stephen Moulton Babcock. He taught at the dairy school. In 1890, he made the Babcock test, which showed the amount of butterfat in milk. The test was rapid and accurate in testing milk, suggesting against thinning and aging processes, and made the process of testing cows' milk practical.

To this day, the Wisconsin dairy industry is the second largest dairy industry in the country. Although now the dairy industry is huge, for much of history that was not the case.

[Source: Wisconsin History Highlights]

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