Organic products are taking up more and more space on grocery store shelves, especially in the dairy case. Dairying is one of the fast-growing sectors in the fast-growing organic agriculture industry, and Wisconsin produces one-third of the nation’s organic dairy products and 2 percent of the state’s milk cows are certified as organic. Wisconsin is also home to the nation’s largest organic milk cooperative.

Yet despite the strong move toward organic dairying here, there has been little systematic effort to learn about the state’s organic dairy operations in terms of size, demographics, management strategies and quality of life.

A new report by researchers in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Program on Agricultural Technology Studies (PATS) goes a long way toward filling that knowledge gap. The report, titled “Organic Dairy Farms in Wisconsin: Prosperous, Modern and Expansive,” is based on surveys taken of the state’s organic milk producers and their conventional counterparts.

“Wisconsin is a big player in [the organic dairy] market; one-third of organic dairy products in the United States are from Wisconsin. Because our job is to investigate what is happening in agriculture in the state, and no one had a clear understanding of this rapidly expanding sector, we decided to investigate it more,” says Carol Roth, an outreach specialist at PATS. “This research is important because it provides information is not available from other sources.”

PATS researchers compared three types of dairy farms: organic, conventional and rotational grazing operations.

Organic dairy farms were defined as operations whose cows have access to pasture, receive no hormones or antibiotics, and eat feeds raised without the use of pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Currently, about 300 of Wisconsin’s 15,300 dairy farms are organic.

Operators of rotational grazing operations, or graziers, feed their cows on pastures during the grazing season, moving them to fresh paddock at least once a week. Conventional dairy operations have minimal reliance on pastures; cows are fed grain and silage in or near the barns.

The researchers compared the three types of enterprises, looking at things like farmer demographics, farm size and structure, use of technologies, management practices, overall economic performance and various quality of life issues.

While some of the results were surprising, overall they paint a sunny picture for the state’s organic dairy operations. Among the report’s findings:

  • Wisconsin’s organic dairy operations adopt modern technologies and management practices at a level similar to conventional dairy farms, including the use of milking parlors, free-stall barns and computerized farm records.
  • They tend to milk fewer cows than conventional dairy operations. The average organic dairy herd size is 65 cows compared to 97 cows for conventional farms.
  • Organic dairy operations tend to produce less milk per cow. Organic cows on the farms studied averaged 52.3 pounds of milk per day, compared to 64 pounds for cows on conventional farms.
  • Organic producers have a higher net income than conventional dairy farms. Despite fewer cows and lower milk yields, organic farmers come out ahead because of the higher premiums paid for their product.
  • Organic dairy farmers are much more likely to say they are satisfied with their net farm income. They are also more likely to report being satisfied with their quality of life and more optimistic about their future prospects in the dairy business.

While the study results represent a snapshot of the current state of organic dairy farms in Wisconsin, the researchers think it bodes well for the future of these enterprises.

“The organic sector is the fastest growing food sector in the United States. Even big box stores are buying organic products,” says Roth. “Consumers want these products and there is a lot of potential for Wisconsin’s economy to expand in this area.”

For a free copy of the PATS Research Report No. 16 “Organic Dairy Farms in Wisconsin: Prosperous, Modern and Expansive,” go to: or call (608) 265-2908.

University of Wisconsin