Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Rise of Dairy Farming

How Wisconsin Became the Dairy State

The Rise of Dairy Farming | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBlack and white photograph of Dr. Stephen Moulton Babcock seated on a stool and milking a cow.

Dr Babcock Milking a Cow, 1928

Dr. Stephen Moulton Babcock seated on a stool and milking a cow. Another man stands near the head of the cow. They are in a fenced field near a road, most likely University of Wisconsin farm land near Madison, Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 66992

Wheat was the first and most important cash crop for white settlers in Wisconsin. It did not require much money and was fairly easy to grow, allowing farmers to harvest twice a year. From 1840 to 1880, Wisconsin was called "America's breadbasket" because a sixth of the nation's wheat came from the state. Wheat farming helped develop agriculture in Wisconsin sooner than in other states.

Despite its appeal, wheat had its risks. It depleted nitrogen from the soil very quickly. Yield could vary greatly from year to year. By the late 1850s, competition from farmers in Iowa and Minnesota and low quality crops brought the price of wheat down in Wisconsin. Disaster struck in the 1860s, when tiny insects known as chinch bugs began devouring Wisconsin wheat crops.

Faced with the many challenges of growing wheat, farmers began experimenting with alternative crops. Feed crops, rather than cash crops, were better suited to Wisconsin's climate and soil. 


Charles Rockwell was one of the earliest cheese makers in Wisconsin. He began production at Koshkonong, near Fort Atkinson in Jefferson County, in 1837. In the 1840s, dairying became the most viable alternative to wheat. The number of dairy cows increased quickly. By 1899, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms raised dairy cows. 

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

Help from the UW

EnlargeWisconsin Department of Agriculture workers cut large blocks of Swiss cheese.

Cutting the Cheese, 1950

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture workers cut large blocks of Swiss cheese. View the original source document: WHI 8437

The University of Wisconsin helped support the dairy industry through scientific research. The university's first professor of agriculture, William A. Henry, used the university's farm to experiment with new dairy 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. Babcock's test enabled high quality butter and cheese to be manufactured consistently. The university also began offering "short courses" and "winter courses" on agriculture. The purpose of the classes was to educate farmers on the benefits of dairying. The university's Farmers' Institutes, brought farmers and scientists together to share ideas.

Dairyman's Association

In the 1870s, leaders of the Wisconsin cheese industry organized several professional organizations. One of the most famous organizations was the Wisconsin Dairyman's Association, founded in Watertown in 1872. It was primarily a marketing association. However, the Dairyman's Association also provided education in new dairying methods through its publications and meetings. The group wanted to promote cheese, as well as overcome opposition to the cheese industry among farmers.

Wisconsin's German and Scandinavian immigrant families also helped grow the dairy industry. They adapted to dairying quickly, and created European style cheeses inspired by their home countries. Wisconsin was soon famous for its Swiss cheese. Wisconsin became the leading dairy state in 1915, producing more butter and cheese than any other. 

Learn More

[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; "History" on Hoard's Dairyman]