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Retiring Dairy Scientist Looks At Wisconsin Dairying’s Future

Larry Satter’s career in dairy research spans five decades – years that have seen cow performance skyrocket and dairy farm numbers crash. Wisconsin had more than 100,000 dairy farms when Satter arrived at the UW-Madison in 1960. Today fewer than 17,000 remain. “The dairy industry has an $18-billion impact on Wisconsin,” Satter says. “If we lose it, it will leave a tremendous hole in the state’s economic structure, as well as disrupting the structure of rural communities.” The state dairy industry faces many challenges, but Satter believes that Wisconsin can – and should – remain America’s Dairyland.

“We need to show the public that a thriving dairy industry can not only be environmentally benign, but can be a positive for the environment because of its need for forages. Having a market – cows – for forages allows us to manage lands for forage. Unlike row crops such as corn and soybeans, forages anchor the soil, reducing erosion. If there’s a sustainable livestock industry, it will be dairy, because of our reliance on forages,” he says. “We have to get this message out – that we are a positive force for good environmental husbandry.”

Manure should be managed as a resource, not a waste, Satter says. “Manure recycles nutrients, and it returns organic matter to the soil, which increases rainwater infiltration rates. We will need to maintain a balance between land area and animal numbers – Wisconsin is still in good shape, unlike central California, North Carolina and Arkansas. We’ve got to incorporate manure, rather than surface-applying it, which creates runoff and ammonia losses as well as odors.”

Satter says ammonia losses to the atmosphere could become the next big industry challenge. “Looking back, I think we’ll say that managing phosphorus was duck soup compared with the ammonia problem.” He points out that there are ways to reduce ammonia right now – feeding balanced diets that avoid excessive protein, following National Research Council feeding recommendations, and incorporating manure in ways that don’t increase soil erosion.

The United States has about 9.2 million cows. About 4,500 herds of 2,000 cows each could supply all the milk we need. New Mexico herds now average 2,000 cows. “If our industry is whittled down to those herd numbers, I think it will be disastrous to Wisconsin’s rural communities, as well as environmentally,” Satter says. “Wisconsin doesn’t have the land mass to accommodate many huge dairies and still be able to handle manure, and if you have to haul manure away, you lose the opportunity to build soil organic matter and tilth.”

Dairy (and all of agriculture) needs to capture more of the retail dollar. “The farmer’s share keeps declining. Why should that be when the producers start out owning the product?” Satter asks. “Producer co-ops seem unable to capture enough value to provide adequate returns to farm labor and management. If we can’t capture more of the retail dollar, and if we don’t have a level playing field in terms of environmental regulations, I think Wisconsin will lose a significant part of its dairy industry to other places, and it will be very hard to get that back.”

The Midwest dairy industry must restructure so it can compete with California and the Southwest, as well as overseas. It’s a complex challenge that has to involve state legislators and local planning and zoning committees, as well as farmers. Wisconsin has many advantages, Satter says, but the biggest might be its human infrastructure of savvy farmers, along with veterinarians and consultants.

“It’s going to require us to decide what’s good and right, and pursue that. I’m optimistic, but we have to be realistic about the challenges,” Satter says. “It’s going to take our very best to continue to have a thriving dairy industry in Wisconsin.”