OPINION The Wisconsin grazing community has had a bond with France since the first dairy grazier cracked open the book “Grass Productivity” by Andre Voisin. Translated into English in the late 1980s, Voisin’s 1956 work on managed grazing reached Wisconsin just as the state’s grazing movement was beginning.
Andre Pflimlin, a dairy researcher with the French Academy of Agriculture, has watched Wisconsin’s grazing movement since its birth. Grassland 2.0 had the opportunity to host him and his colleagues in fall 2022 when they visited Wisconsin.
It was his third visit to Wisconsin in about 30 years. Together we commiserated about what the state’s grazing movement had once been, the headwinds it has currently, and how managed grazing could help revitalize the dairy industry here and in France.
Pflimlin as well as Jean Yves Penn, a dairy farmer from France, and I spent a week together in September visiting farms and talking about our respective dairy sectors. I was struck by the strong similarities in both biophysical and social context.
Our climates and soils are similar enough that we can share management practices. Our dairy sectors also are known for specialty cheeses from artisan-scale cheese plants with locally produced milk. Wisconsin accounts for about 50 percent of specialty-cheese production in the United States. France’s specialty-cheese reputation speaks for itself.
In spite of successes, both dairy sectors face pressures to consolidate and industrialize milk production. In the past decade the total number of dairy cows in Wisconsin has remained constant at about 1.2 million. But those cows are now distributed across 40-percent-fewer farms. The average herd size has about doubled to about 200 cows. The number of concentrated animal-feeding operations also has doubled during that period.
French dairies face challengesIn both France and Wisconsin efforts are being made to build on a historic culture of artisanship in our dairy industries. But similar to the influence of America’s food and agricultural policy on Wisconsin, France’s membership in the European Union has created external pressures that influence the effectiveness of internal policies. Removal of dairy quotas in 2015 by the European Union was the latest and largest challenge, but France’s policies and traditions have helped keep consolidation at bay.
The average dairy herd in France is about 72 cows, less than half that in Wisconsin and less than a quarter of the U.S. average of 317 cows. There are about 50,000 dairy farms in France.
- Like Wisconsin most of the milk produced – 75 percent – goes toward fresh milk and lesser-value industrial products such as powdered milk and commodity cheese. The cows are mainly confined and fed a corn-silage-based diet.
- The other 25 percent is the source of France’s dairy reputation. That sector taps into the “taste of place,” the role that unique soil and climate conditions play in shaping the flavor of foods such as cheese and wine.
Unlike milk from confined cows, milk from grazed cows takes on unique and complex flavors through the fresh pasture they consume. Skilled cheesemakers use those flavors to make one-of-a-kind award-winning cheeses.
France’s specialty dairy products come from two distinct regions. One region is comprised of lowland grassland farms, which produce grass-based and non-genetically modified products. The other region is comprised of mountain grassland farms, which specialize in Protected Designation of Origin programs and organic production.
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Those premium markets exist because many consumers support the value for which they stand and deliver in terms of environmental stewardship, economic sustainability and social benefits. They’re sought for their flavor and their story.
Cheesemakers look to France When dairy graziers Mike Gingrich and Dan Patenaude of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, decided to diversify their operation with cheesemaking in the late 1990s, they looked to France for inspiration. Working with French-alpine cheesemakers and the University of Wisconsin-Center for Dairy Research, Gingrich developed his own Beaufort-style cheese recipe that capitalizes on the unique qualities of the diverse pastures on their Wisconsin farm.
The result was Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of the most award-winning cheeses in American history and still strong after more than 20 years. The farm and cheese business have since been transferred to a new generation. But partners Scott Mericka and Andy Hatch continue to demonstrate the potential of Wisconsin’s dairy sector to thrive in ways that protect our heritage and environment.
Wisconsin doesn’t have a Protected Designation of Origin program such as the one in France. But programs such as our Master Cheesemaker program build a culture for artisan cheesemakers to create unique, award-winning cheeses using locally produced milk. With premiums for their products, cheesemakers can afford to offer premiums to their farmer partners.
Cheesemakers share passionThe Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program is unique in the nation. It’s an example of the kind of activity that can change the direction of an industry by providing support for private-sector development. The program is offered through the UW-Center for Dairy Research. It’s supported by Wisconsin’s dairy-checkoff program and by organizations such as the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
Only about 5 percent of Wisconsin’s 1,200 licensed cheesemakers have completed the three years of coursework and apprenticeship to become a Master Cheesemaker. The group has been instrumental in producing winning Wisconsin cheeses year after year in contests such as the World Championship Cheese Contest. Wisconsin was responsible for seven of the top 20 cheeses in the 2022 contest.
Wisconsin will always be America’s Dairyland. But if allowed to continue, consolidation will dramatically alter the state’s landscape and the fabric of our rural communities.
Does it matter how Wisconsin’s 1.2 million dairy cows are distributed in the landscape? Would it be better to have 6,500 biodiversity-enhancing pasture-based farms producing milk with the unique flavors of Wisconsin? Or would it be better to have 650 confined-animal-feeding operations – with an average of 2,000 cows – producing milk that all tastes the same?
It’s estimated that each Wisconsin dairy cow generates $34,000 in economic activity in the community where the farm is located. Do we want that economic activity spread across many communities or do we want it concentrated in a few places?
Dairy farming isn’t just an economic engine for Wisconsin. It’s part of our history and culture. And it can help protect clean water, promote soil health and productivity, enhance biodiversity and foster community vitality.
In the face of national and international pressures to expand, consolidate and commodify, we must do more than save farms. We must bolster the elements of regional food systems that provide unique and flavorful foods in a regenerative system.
The farms, processors and institutions that Pflimlin, Penn and I visited exemplify some of the solutions we need. Wisconsin’s and France’s advantage is that we still have a strong foundation of these systems that have served us so well. Realigning policies and programs, and reshaping them for the future, are the keys to rebuilding a healthy, thriving dairy industry.
Visit grasslandag.org for more information.
Laura Paine is the outreach coordinator for Grassland 2.0. Visit grasslandag.org for more information.