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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Wisconsin's Dairy Industry (Historic Marker Erected 1980)


Rest Area No. 51, southbound lane I-43, just S of Brown-Manitowoc County line

The growth of the dairy industry in Wisconsin is a story of remarkable transfer of scientific knowledge to practical use. As dairy farming developed, Wisconsin's agri­culture underwent transformation in less than 50 years. Proposed as an alternative to wheat farming as early as the 1850's, dairying was common in southeastern and south central Wisconsin by the early 1860's. Farmers in other regions soon adopted diversified dairy farming, an enterprise favored by the state's geography. At first the "general purpose cow" provided milk, meat, and motive power, but milk produc­tion increased dramatically when farmers accepted the concept of the single pur­pose dairy cow and applied scientific methods of feeding, management, and selec­tive breeding. Most milk was made into cheese and butter, which at first were made on the farm. In the 1870's, however, factories began dominating the cheese industry, and in the 1890's the butter industry. Wisconsin had 245,000 dairy cows 5y 1867 and more than 2,000,000 by 1925. By 1907, Wisconsin, 13th largest state, produced nearly half the cheese and a tenth of the butter in the nation.

[Source: McBride, Sarah Davis. History Just Ahead (Madison:WHS, 1999).]
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