Brown Eyed Girls – Dairy Month


At last count, Wisconsin was home to around 1.28 million dairy cows and 6,000 dairy farms, thus ensuring its place as America’s Dairyland, as noted on every ’sconnie license plate. The number of cows a/k/a brown eyed girls may surprise a few folks who reside in sustainable urban neighborhoods. Milk, cheese, and ice cream come from grocery stores and convenience stores, right?

Governor Tony Evers’ annual Dairy Month proclamation estimates dairy farmers in Wisconsin produced 32 billion (with a “b”) pounds of milk in 2022, representing 14 percent of all milk produced in the U.S.

Gov. Evers also estimates the dairy sector contributes $45.6 billion (“b”) to the state’s economy. That output is a full 22 percent of Wisconsin’s total gross domestic product (GDP) of $306.5 billion.

St. Croix County is home to an estimated 17,100 dairy cows, while Pierce has 15,000 and Polk has 14,000, all according to UW Extension. Add’em up. It equates to a major city.

The dairy stats keep getting better. With nearly 1,200 licensed cheesemakers, Wisconsin is also the nation’s top cheese producing state. Rhetorically, who doesn’t like a daily/weekly helping of Colby, Havarti, Asiago, or Muenster? Hold the Gouda, please! There’s a haunting fable about St. Croix’s fast-talking economic development guy having never sampled Wisconsin’s little-known sixth food group – cheese curds – until he made the move from Minnesota decades ago. He’s made up for lost opportunities, thanks in part to a certain statin prescription.

St. Croix and Pierce counties have been included in the federal definition of the 15-county Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro area for a long time. It’s the nation’s 16th most populous region with 3.7 million residents. Nearby Polk County will likely be aligned with the Twin Cities in a few years, but the decision rests with metrics used by the federal Office of Management and Budget. Regardless, there’s plenty of rural in the valley to go along with the metro designation.

Rural means room for dairies, corn and soy fields, hogs and pigs, and poultry and eggs. There’s a prohibitive wagering chance that dairies existed long before adjacent residential subdivisions. The dairy farmer, however, is less likely to call a town hall or county department to complain about noise from generators and nail guns. Don’t mess with the milking schedule for fifteen hundred brown eyed girls. They much prefer the lyrics of Santa Lucia to the steady pop-pop-pop of roofers. One cow can produce six to seven gallons of milk per day and more than 2,200 gallons per year. Pop-pop-pop messes with production. Turn up Santa Lucia, Dean the dairy farmer!

Dairy operators are deeply involved with technology. Farmer Dean’s granddaughter operates the dairy, making her the fifth generation. A 60-stall rotary milking system was recently installed. Brown eyed girls are creatures of habit, so a merry-go-round parlor came with hesitation. The ladies are more comfortable after each rotary milking. Says who? Their cud chewing is a give-away. Up the road, dairy owners Kevin and Roxann installed a sand recovery system, making it the first of its kind in the U.S. for the Danish equipment maker. A comfortable cow is a productive one and sand is considered ideal bedding. The sand is washed and separated from manure for reuse, saving the farm 750+ truckloads of sand annually. Next on the horizon is technology turning manure into renewable natural gas and fertilizer through a process called anaerobic digestion. Hint: multi-million dollar systems use bacteria to break down organic matter like manure and food waste in the absence of oxygen. Second hint: an anaerobic digester is basically a mechanical stomach. Stay tuned.

Dairies are not your father’s Oldsmobile. They are at the intersection of nature and science, driving a huge network of equipment manufacturers, processing plants, veterinarians, cooperatives, milk haulers, and genetics and software companies.

Here’s to milk, cheese, and ice cream in Wisconsin’s St. Croix Valley. Here’s to a sixth food group. Here’s to brown eyed girls on the carousel swaying to Santa Lucia.