The Rise of Dairy Farming

Wheat was the earliest and most important cash crop for white settlers in Wisconsin. It required a small initial capital investment and was fairly easy to grow, allowing farmers to harvest two crops a year. The high rate of financial return made wheat an especially attractive crop for homesteaders during the middle of the 19th century.

Wheat provided a way for new immigrants in Wisconsin to farm cheaply and to deliver a product that many people needed. From 1840 to 1880, Wisconsin was considered "America's breadbasket" because one-sixth of the wheat grown in the nation came from Wisconsin. The early success of wheat farming helped Wisconsin's agriculture develop more rapidly than it did in other states.

Despite its appeal, wheat also had risks and disadvantages. It was hard on the soil, which it quickly depleted of nitrogen. Depending on the vagaries of the weather and insect infestation, yield could vary substantially from year to year. By the late 1850s, the price of wheat began to drop as Wisconsin yields and quality diminished and competition increased from farmers in Iowa and Minnesota. Disaster struck in the 1860s, when tiny insects known as chinch bugs began devouring Wisconsin wheat crops.

To meet these challenges, farmers began experimenting with a variety of alternatives to wheat. Feed crops, rather than cash crops, were better suited to Wisconsin's soil and climate, and came to characterize the state's agriculture in the late nineteenth century.

Charles Rockwell was one of the earliest cheese makers in Wisconsin, beginning production at Koshkonong, near Fort Atkinson in Jefferson County, in 1837. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, dairying emerged as the most viable alternative to wheat. The number of dairy cows increased rapidly and by 1899, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms raised dairy cows. Much of the success of Wisconsin dairying can be attributed to the efforts of William Dempster Hoard, who tirelessly promoted the industry for nearly fifty years. The University of Wisconsin School of Agriculture also played an active role in encouraging dairy farming throughout the southern part of the state.

The dairy industry expanded rapidly in Wisconsin for several reasons. Many of the enterprising dairy farmers who settled in southern Wisconsin in the 1840s and 1850s were New Yorkers. At the time, New York was the leading dairy producer in the nation and they brought with them the skills needed for commercial dairying and butter and cheese production. Although it was more difficult to produce, most of the earliest dairy operations made cheese rather than butter because it kept longer.

Dairying was also helped by the University of Wisconsin, which actively promoted the industry in the late 19th century through scientific research. The first professor of agriculture, William A. Henry, used the university's farm to experiment with new dairying methods. The university also promoted the use of cylindrical silos for storing feed for cattle during the winter. Professor Stephen Babcock developed the first test for butterfat content in milk, which allowed high quality butter and cheeses to be manufactured consistently, and the university's College of Agriculture pioneered testing for bacteria that led to practical methods of milk pasteurization.

In the 1870s, leaders of the growing Wisconsin cheese industry organized several professional organizations to promote their product and to overcome farmer opposition to the cheese industry. The transition from wheat husbandman to herdsman had been difficult for many farmers, and the adjustment to the more regulated and confining routine of the factory supplier had proved especially trying. Among the most famous of the organizations was the Wisconsin Dairyman's Association, founded in Watertown in 1872. Though primarily a marketing association, the Dairyman's Association also provided education in new dairying methods through its publications and meetings.

In the 1880s, the university began offering agricultural "short courses" and "winter courses" in Madison to educate farmers on the benefits of dairying. Its Farmers' Institutes, held around the state, also brought farmers and scientists together to share ideas.

Finally, the dairy industry was helped by the German and Scandinavian immigrant families who were quick to adopt dairying as a profitable way to farm. They also specialized in the European-style cheeses that appealed to consumers, and Wisconsin became known for its Swiss cheese. By 1915, Wisconsin had become the leading dairy state in the nation, producing more butter and cheese than any other state.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vols. 2 and 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Economics in Wisconsin." The Wisconsin Mosaic (online at http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~dalbello/FLVA/background/economics.html); "History" on Hoard's Dairyman (online at http://www.hoards.com/history/hilltop.html)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: An interview with Dr. Babcock (1923)An interview with Dr. Babcock (1923)
Link to article: William Dempster Hoard looks back on the start of dairy farming in WisconsinWilliam Dempster Hoard looks back on the start of dairy farming in Wisconsin
Link to article: Recollections of Old SuperiorRecollections of Old Superior
Link to article: A history of cheesemaking in Green CountyA history of cheesemaking in Green County
Link to article: The legacy of the farm magazine, Hoard's Dairyman (1935)The legacy of the farm magazine, Hoard's Dairyman (1935)
Link to article: A Sauk Co. farmer recalls turning from wheat to dairy in the 1850s.A Sauk Co. farmer recalls turning from wheat to dairy in the 1850s.
Link to article: Cheese-making in Monticello, ca. 1870Cheese-making in Monticello, ca. 1870
Link to artifacts: A quilt made by hand, 1908-1934, from prize ribbonsA quilt made by hand, 1908-1934, from prize ribbons
Link to artifacts: A copper Swiss cheese kettleA copper Swiss cheese kettle
Link to artifacts: The oldest toast in WisconsinThe oldest toast in Wisconsin
Link to artifacts: Racine's malted milk transforms American soda fountainsRacine's malted milk transforms American soda fountains
Link to artifacts: Hoard's Dairyman Farm milk bottleHoard's Dairyman Farm milk bottle
Link to book: A history and statistical summary of dairying, 1860-1931.A history and statistical summary of dairying, 1860-1931.
Link to book: A 1944 cookbook featuring dairy productsA 1944 cookbook featuring dairy products
Link to images: Advertisements for farm equipmentAdvertisements for farm equipment
Link to images: Pictures of the founders of Wisconsin's dairy industry.Pictures of the founders of Wisconsin's dairy industry.
Link to images: Photos and advertisements showing dairy farmers at work, 1900-1950Photos and advertisements showing dairy farmers at work, 1900-1950
Link to images: Picture of Dr. Stephen Babcock with his butterfat tester.Picture of Dr. Stephen Babcock with his butterfat tester.
Link to images: Photos and information about the UW Dairy BarnPhotos and information about the UW Dairy Barn
Link to manuscript: William Dempster Hoard discusses his vision for the dairy industryWilliam Dempster Hoard discusses his vision for the dairy industry
Link to manuscript: A female leader in Wisconsin dairyingA female leader in Wisconsin dairying
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