Wisconsin media reported last week that while the number of Wisconsin dairy cow farms dropped below 10,000 for the first time in generations, both cow’s milk production and specialty cheese numbers in America’s Dairyland are up. How can that be?
With the high cost of land and feed, farms today must get bigger to stay profitable and compete on a national level. It is no longer viable for the average farmer to milk 10 cows and still make enough money to take a vacation or send kids to college. That’s why we’re seeing more family farms combine herds, add cows and grow larger.
Here’s a breakdown of farm and cow numbers in Wisconsin, according to the last agricultural census: about 1,300 farms milk 19 cows or less; 3,200 milk 20-49 cows; about 4,200 operations milk 40-99 cows; 1,580 farms milk 100-199 cows; 815 farms milk 200-499 cows; 256 operations milk 500-999 cows; 106 farms milk 1,000 to 2,499 cows; and 25 dairies milk more than 2,500 cows.
Despite the overall lower number of farms, Wisconsin dairies are producing more milk. In fact, the state’s 1.27 million cows produced a record 27.7 billion pounds of milk last year, a record high.
Speaking of records, the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service released the latest Specialty Cheese numbers this week. In 2014, Wisconsin maintained its ranking as the nation’s no. 1 cheese producing state, with specialty cheese accounting for 23 percent of all cheese production, up from 15 percent in 2006.
Of the state’s 127 cheese plants, 91 craft at least one type of specialty cheese. Feta accounts for the largest share of specialty cheese production, with Blue, Havarti, Hispanic types, specialty Mozzarella, Parmesan and specialty Provolone all remaining popular. Italian Fontina production rose a record 27 percent over the previous year, while Romano wheel production was 20 percent higher.
And while the number of cheese plants in Wisconsin continues to increase, one Wisconsin dairy family announced this week it plans to expand that number even further. John Pagel, owner of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, announced construction is underway for a 2,500-square-foot cheese plant on the family farm.
The Pagels milk 5,000 cows and have been experimenting with cheesemaking since last summer, having a nearby cheese plant craft cheese with their milk. During a Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute meeting in September on the Pagel farm, attendees were treated to a prototype Ponderosa Dairy cheese of garlic and herb cheddar. John says he’s been working with the Center for Dairy Research in Madison to develop a unique farmstead cheese that will carry the Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy Farm label, and on May 1, hired Master Cheesemaker Steve Hurd as farm cheese plant manager.
The Pagels already see between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors on their farm every year, John says, so building an on-farm cheese plant is the natural next step. “I’ve got four kids working on the farm now, and 10 grandkids eager to get into the business.”
Expanding his farm over time has been key to the Pagels’ success. John took over the family farm from his father in 1980, milking 150 cows. In 1995, the farm expanded to 450 cows, and in 2000, the farm built a double-20 parlor, expanding to 1,500 cows. In 2008, the Pagels built an on-farm methane digester that creates enough energy to power 1,200 homes, and in 2009, installed a 72-cow rotary milking parlor that milks 525 cows an hour. The herd is primarily Jersey-cross breed and Holsteins.
|The 72-cow rotary milking parlor at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy.|
Last year, John purchased Ron’s Cheese in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, and signed a lease to launch the Cannery Public Market in downtown Green Bay, a proposed local foods center. He plans to use Ron’s Cheese as both a retail outlet and wholesale distributor, and to sell the farm’s cheese at the new Green Bay facility, next door to Titletown Brewery. Prototypes of Ponderosa Cheese made and aged at a nearby cheese plant is now for sale online.
“We’re hoping to create an atmosphere that consumers will enjoy and supply it with our own beef, cheese and dairy products,” John says. He’s working to create a one-stop destination at the farm where visitors can see cows milked, energy created and cheese manufactured. “People will be able to watch a number of technologies happen all in the same location.”
Congratulations to the Pagel family! We look forward to eating more of your cheese very soon.