Who’s happy now? Wisconsin’s dairy cows get the edge on their bovine sisters in California

Some studies say that happy cows produce more milk and California has claimed for years that its cows are happiest, but new data are proving that Wisconsin’s dairy industry is becoming the bomb for bovines as the Golden State struggles through an epic drought.

Wisconsin produced more milk per cow than California in June and July, according to early estimates from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

If the numbers hold up, it would mark the first time in an eye-popping 684 months — that’s 57 years, dating back to June 1958 — that Wisconsin topped California in that measure, which played a key role in California’s race past Wisconsin to become the country’s top milk producer in the 1990s.

“It’s amazing to imagine that kind of a trend overturned,” said Mark Stephenson, director of the Center for Dairy Profitability at UW-Madison. “If the numbers hold up, it will reflect a general trend of events that have been happening for awhile.”

That trend reflects hard times for a California dairy industry that looked invincible in 2008 when it produced 41.2 billion pounds of milk, topping Wisconsin’s production by a record 16.7 billion pounds. Since then, Wisconsin rallied, boosting production 13.6 percent to reach 27.8 billion pounds in 2014.

Despite the four-year drought, California set a new production record last year at 42.3 billion pounds, but its growth has slowed since 2008, rising just 2.8 percent since then, allowing Wisconsin to close its California gap by 2.2 billion pounds in 2014. That deficit is expected to shrink even further in 2015.

But Stephenson and other ag economists say Wisconsin isn’t about to surpass California in milk production anytime in the near future.

“Anything can happen,” Stephenson said. “But California still has a substantial lead in total milk production relative to Wisconsin so I’m not sure anybody should be waving that flag of victory yet. It could lead to some crow that you’d have to eat a little bit later.”

What interests the dairy experts is how and why the two states’ dairy industries are moving in opposite directions and what it means for their respective states. The explanation begins with the quality of feed. Farmers believe the better the cows eat, the more milk they produce.

In California, where dairy farmers buy the majority of their feed rather than grow it, high feed prices due to the drought and other factors have forced them to opt for cheaper, less nutritious feed, Stephenson said. They are also culling more cows to make ends meet.

Stephenson said California farms that have grown corn or alfalfa for their cows in past years have had to scrap those plans because of water shortages. Some are using the land to plant nut trees that don’t need as much water and provide better opportunities for profit. Others are selling and getting out of the business.

After maintaining a consistent per-cow production average through 2014, the bottom has fallen out this year for California’s dairy industry. It has yet to have a month that matched or bettered the same month from last year.

If the June estimate stands up, California’s per-cow production numbers will have dropped 7 percent from the previous month and nearly 11 percent since reaching a record high of 2,140 pounds in March 2014.

Early estimates from NASS had Wisconsin milk production at 1,915 pounds per cow in June, which topped California by just five pounds, and at 1,955 pounds in July, which was 40 pounds better than California. California had topped Wisconsin’s per-cow production by 175 pounds this March and by nearly 300 pounds in some months in 2014. That latter gap was the norm for much the past 30 years.

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It’s not out of the question that Wisconsin could top California for the year in per-cow production. Wisconsin trailed by nearly 1,500 pounds through July last year and finished 1,916 pounds behind at the end of the year. This year, Wisconsin has put together the strongest increase in per-cow production among the top milk-producing states and trailed California by just 615 pounds through July, according to NASS data.

That loss of production is big news in California, where dairy has maintained its edge as the biggest money maker for its mammoth agriculture industry. The total losses from the drought are expected to reach $2.7 billion for the state’s ag industry in 2015, with job losses reaching 18,700, according to an economic impact analysis of the drought.

“It’s really serious. There are some really good farms that are in financial difficulty,” said Stephenson. “This drought is going to impact California for a long, long time. We have a pretty strong El Niño that is forming and that could bring more rain and moisture to California this winter, but it won’t be enough to declare the drought broken and gone. It’s going to take awhile for that to happen.”

Adding to the bad news for California — the top dairy product exporting state — is a forecast from the U.S. Dairy Export Council for another weak year for sales of U.S. dairy products worldwide, which will lead to a milk surplus that will keep prices down.

“When you go back to 2010, there was more of a feeling of panic from the people I worked with,” said Annie AcMoody, director of economic analysis for Western United Dairyman, an organization whose members in California produce 60 percent of that state’s milk. “Now it’s more frustration and an inability to change things to where they want them to be.”

The best explanation for Wisconsin’s surge in milk production is higher-quality feed due to a couple of excellent growing seasons, Stephenson said.

Also, more Wisconsin farmers have pulled their cows out of tight, cramped quarters and are adding creature comforts like comfy bedding and free-range stalls in their barns, parallel milking parlors that are more comfortable for the cows and more nutritious pastures that have been part of the California dairy infrastructure for decades.

“One of the things we saw after World War II and into the 1990s was the lack of reinvestment in the infrastructure of the (dairy) industry, and that slowed our opportunities down,” said Patrick Geoghegan, spokesman for the Milk Marketing Board of Wisconsin. “Now you’ve seen that reinvestment in the infrastructure in the processing and farm side and that has propelled the growth that you’ve seen the last decade.”

Even if California stays on a long-term downward trend in milk production, it is still unlikely that Wisconsin will overtake it because California has nearly 500,000 more cows and Wisconsin’s proud history as a small-farm dairy state will limit the growth of more big farms that can dramatically increase cow numbers. “The land can become available slowly over time, but that explosive growth that is needed (to increase production rapidly) is very difficult in this region,” Stephenson said.

Geoghegan believes strengthening the state’s dairy industry is more important than regaining its crown as the milk production leader.

“That points to efficiency, and that’s absolutely necessary if you want to be competitive in the dairy industry,” he said.

But there is room to have some fun once in a while, so there was no shortage of commentary when the discussion turned to which state has the happiest cows.

Stephenson said it’s common knowledge that cows prefer temperatures below 50 degrees, so while California is warmer and sunnier, the happier home for cows is Wisconsin.

“We might not like it (the colder weather), but that is really where the cows are happiest,” he added.