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'We must act now': Wisconsin is losing dairy farms at an alarming rate

Posted at 10:57 AM, Jun 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-05 09:20:12-04

America's Dairyland is in crisis. More and more Wisconsin dairy farmers are going out of business. Part of the solution might actually involve milk-- but not in the way you think.

Imagine this - what if the business where you worked, or the place where you shop, or where you buy gas or a car, was going out of business at the rate of two a day?

That's what is happening to the dairy industry - 700 Wisconsin Dairy farms went out of business last year.

"The dairy industry has been struggling for a while, but now the problem has become acute and we must act and we must act now," said Wayne Weber, Dean of the College of Business, Industry, Life Science, and Agriculture at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

That action starts at a farm tucked away in the rolling hills of Southwest Wisconsin. Professor Tera Montgomery helps run the Pioneer Farm at UW-Platteville. The cows and calves are part of her classroom.

"It's a living and learning laboratory so there is something going on all the time," said Professor Montgomery. "It's a working farm."

Platteville is one of three UW schools hoping to get a share of $8 million in research dollars from the state to start the first ever Dairy Innovation Hub - a center dedicated to taks like finding new dairy products, but also looking for unconventional ways to use milk.

"True confession here. I drink milk. I drink a lot of milk," Charles Benson said. "But do we need more people to drink more milk or do we need to find more ways to use milk?"

"I would say it's going to be a little bit of both," Professor Montgomery said.

For example - combining manure with leftover whey - a by product of cheese made with milk to run thru what's called a digester to create energy.

"So things like bio-digesters on farms that can use both the manure on the farm or excess milk of excess whey by products to make fuel to help run the farm or potentially run communities that are local to the farm," said Montgomery.

Milk as fuel? Sort of.

"We're not going to drive up to a cow," said Montgomery, "We don't want to do that."

But perhaps there are new ways to use byproducts from milk.

"Making sure that we can then have, as a sustainable way going forward in terms of fuel and energy," Montgomery says.

Plus, they can develop new products to help people with allergies or an intolerance to milk - to enjoy it.

"It's making sure we are making unique products that are going to be what the consumer wants," said Montgomery, "and what the consumer needs."

But it's not about finding ways to produce more milk, said Dean Weber, Wisconsin is already really good at that. But he believes the research dollars will produce results for an industry that already contributes $43 billion to the state's economy.

"It's going to provide an infrastructure by which we can work with, together, industry partners - researchers, to start to deal with those questions on how do we move the dairy industry into a positive and viable industry in the future."

Not only for America's Dairyland, but for America.

The research money for the Dairy Innovation Hub made it out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions with a unanimous vote. It still needs to clear the Senate and Assembly before getting to the Governor Ever's desk.