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Wisconsin Farm Numbers, Livestock Production down, Grain Production Up During 1990s

Farm numbers, farm acreage and most livestock production in Wisconsin declined between 1987 and 1997, while crop production, particularly soybeans, increased considerably during that time, according to an analysis of Census of Agriculture data by a rural sociologist at UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Farm numbers, total acres in farms, and harvested cropland acres are declining more rapidly in Wisconsin than in the nation as a whole. Wisconsin has lost 10 percent of its lands in farms, 11 percent of its total cropland, and nearly 8 percent of its harvested cropland since 1987. Medium-sized farms are declining especially rapidly in Wisconsin, according to Fred Buttel, chair of the Department of Rural Sociology and associate director of the college”s Program on Agricultural Technology Studies.

Buttel compared data from the USDA”s 1997 Census of Agriculture with data from the 1987 and 1992 censuses. The Census of Agriculture, conducted twice a decade, is the most comprehensive source of data on state- and national-level structural patterns in agriculture.

While small-farm (less than 50 acres) numbers are holding steady; Wisconsin saw a 23-percent decrease in medium-acreage (180 to 499 acres) farms, compared with 16 percent nationally. Large farms (1,000 acres or more) have grown rapidly since 1987 (32 percent in Wisconsin, versus 4 percent nationally).

The rate of increase in Wisconsin farm operators who report that their principal occupation is a non-farming one was 22 percent, versus less than 1 percent nationally. The average age of Wisconsin farmers went from 50.6 years in 1992 to 52.2 years in 1997. “Wisconsin remains substantially a dairy state, and the physical demands of operator labor on dairy farms make the rising age of the state”s farm operators a particular concern,” Buttel says. He adds that this increase in average age suggests that Wisconsin has a low entry rate into farming. Increasing the entry rate is a key factor in slowing or stopping farm losses.

Since 1987, Wisconsin saw a 27-percent increase in cows per dairy farm, from 47 to 59, and the pace of increased scale is quickening, Buttel says. However, the average size of dairy farms nationally increased by 56 percent during this time, and the average herd size of 78 cows per farm is much larger than Wisconsin”s, he points out.

So-called “factory” dairy farms are scarce in America”s Dairyland. Only 54 farms had 500 or more cows, and of 1,089 legally incorporated dairy farms in Wisconsin, only 17 were “other than family held.”

The number of hog farms in Wisconsin fell more than 55 percent since 1987, and the inventory of hogs and pigs in the state has declined by about 40 percent. Drops in the number of dairy farms (minus 39 percent) and milk cows (minus 23 percent) weren”t as great, but these are serious declines for a state that prides itself on being America”s Dairyland, Buttel points out. The number of farms and acres producing alfalfa and hay, as well as the total volume of forage production, declined 25 to 30 percent since 1987.

“Over the past five years Wisconsin has experienced a rapid increase in the value of crop production, but a small decline in the value of livestock production,” Buttel reports. “While Wisconsin remains a predominantly livestock — especially a dairy — state, its livestock and dairy sectors are in relative and absolute decline, and its agriculture is becoming more crop-oriented.”

Corn acreage increased slightly, but soybean production increased dramatically in Wisconsin — much more rapidly than the country as a whole. Since 1987, soybean acreage increased 233 percent and bushels of soybeans increased 271 percent.

While corn and soybean production is rising in Wisconsin, the number of farms producing them is shrinking. Between 1987 and 1997, the number of farms producing corn for grain or seed declined 30 percent, while the number of acres of corn increased by 3 percent and bushels produced increased by 16 percent. Soybean production increased by 233 percent, but the number of soybean producers increased by just 114 percent. “Wisconsin farming is continuing to become more specialized, which is reflected in the fact that the typical Wisconsin farm continues to produce fewer commodities over time,” Buttel says.

“There is a clear trend toward a decline in the position of moderate-scale, full-time family farms, but the sole-proprietor or partnership-type farm remains predominant,” Buttel says. “Very large farm enterprises (more than 1,000 acres or $1 million in gross sales) are increasing fairly rapidly, but they rare still a distinct minority of farms. Total farm numbers are reasonably stable, but there are serious declines in land in farms and in total and harvested cropland.

“Wisconsin remains a predominantly livestock state, but the bulk of its livestock sectors are experiencing significant stresses and challenges, and there is a corresponding trend toward growth in soybeans and cash-grain farming. With the significant exception of soybeans, the number of farmers producing a given commodity is either stable or, more commonly, in rapid decline, while the amount of the commodity produced per farm is increasing. Opportunities in many of Wisconsin”s livestock sectors are shrinking rapidly as a result of the forces that have led to specialization.”

For a copy of Buttel”s report, Wisconsin Agriculture in the 1990s: Perspectives from the 1997 Census of Agriculture, contact Nancy Carlisle at (608) 265-2908,

The 1997 Census of Agriculture is available online at