OPINION Wisconsin’s dairy industry brings more than $82,500 into our state every minute. Our 240 cheesemakers alone make more than a quarter of the nation’s cheese.
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Wisconsin’s dairy farms, cheese companies, fluid-milk processors, cheese marketers and packaging companies – along with feed mills, equipment manufacturers and technicians, veterinarians, construction companies, genetics companies, milk haulers and software companies – comprise one of the most valuable dairy infrastructures in the world.
On a local level family dairy farms are an economic engine driving our state’s rural communities. The loss of their social and economic productivity creates gradual insidious repercussions. As seasons go by school systems are consolidated, businesses close, and once-vibrant towns become empty and quiet.
When Wisconsin’s dairies thrive the whole state benefits. Our prosperity is directly tied to the health of the dairy industry and its $43 billion annual revenue. Our economy is fueled by sustainable dairy. And the engine that fuels the sustainability of dairy is research.
Research crucial catalyst for change
Wisconsin wasn’t always the “Dairy State.” It was once known for its forests, lead mines and wheat fields. Among the people who remade this state’s economy and created an economic powerhouse were the state’s 16th governor and a University of Wisconsin scientist.
Gov. William D. Hoard used his weekly magazine, “Hoard’s Dairyman,” to challenge dairy’s status quo, to motivate research and innovation, and to advance the dairy industry. Heading the Agricultural Chemistry Department of the UW-Agricultural Experiment Station, Stephen Babcock pioneered methods that made Wisconsin into America’s No. 1 cheese producer. Both men promoted science-based innovation that transformed the dairy industry.
State support for research and development was vital then to the advancement of the dairy industry. It’s vital today.
Research, innovation urgently needed
A vibrant research effort is the edge Wisconsin dairy needs to stay one step ahead in the global dairy marketplace. To maintain a sustainable competitive advantage, our state must consistently attract the best talent and consistently be the first to adopt new innovations.
Fresh thinking and innovative ideas from the University of Wisconsin are what made us the Dairy State. Sustaining Wisconsin’s dairy industry requires a rededication to that history of innovation. It will demand collaboration between farmers, processors, industry, environmentalists and other stakeholders.
The state’s help is essential. In the 1970s about 45 cents of every dollar in UW-Madison’s budget came from the state. Today that figure hovers at about 13 cents. Right now an investment of $7.6 million per year across three campuses will reestablish the University of Wisconsin as the Dairy Innovation Hub. That’s less than 0.02 percent of dairy’s $43 billion contribution to Wisconsin’s economy.
That reinvestment in people will enable research to generate much-needed new discoveries. It will train current and future industry leaders. Those leaders will help transfer new knowledge to our farms, dairy-processing plants, watersheds and more. They will build a world-class team of collaborators best positioned to provide interdisciplinary solutions to the complex challenges we face.
‘America’s Dairyland” more than license plate
Wisconsin invests large sums of public money to attract and retain companies that create jobs and strengthen our economy. Dairy is already here, its promises kept and its value proven. And it seems obvious that some of the same forces that built Wisconsin’s dairy industry can be the keys to rebuilding its strength – leadership, research and education.
Our dairy industry has an economic and social impact that’s too important to neglect. We believe strongly that Wisconsin needs to reinvest now in its dairy industry by establishing the Dairy Innovation Hub to drive much-needed innovation. The results will benefit everyone in Wisconsin.
It’s important that we act without delay. We have in-depth planning in place and a detailed explanation of what the Dairy Innovation Hub will mean for Wisconsin. We are eager to share our thinking with you and everyone with a stake in our state.
Kent Weigel is a professor with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, in the Dairy Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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