Wisconsin dairy farmer perspectives on water quality

2023 Dairy Farmer Survey

Adena Rissman, Ana Fochesatto, and Yu Lu

Photo by Finn Ryan

About 6000 dairy farms provide delicious cheese and milk in Wisconsin’s Dairyland, yet some farming practices negatively impact water quality in lakes, streams, and wells. The dairy farm crisis has led to devastating losses in the number of dairy farms, but the amount of milk has been increasing to 31.9 billion gallons of milk produced in Wisconsin in 2022.

Many farmers and organizations are working to improve agricultural management and sustain well-managed grazing operations to reduce runoff and leaching of phosphorus and nitrogen from manure and croplands. This is critical because people depend on clean water for drinking, swimming, and fishing. Farmers and society depend on good healthy soils for growing food and storing carbon.

To learn what dairy farm owners think about water quality, soil health, and policy options, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-River Falls surveyed dairy farmers January through March 2023. Survey results show that dairy farmers view soil health and minimizing nutrient runoff as important for being a ‘good farmer’, are concerned about water quality, and support policies such as paying farmers for water quality outcomes.

The policy survey received responses from 661 of 2000 dairy farmers for a 33% response rate and included questions about labor and working conditions. The team sent this survey, a grazing practices survey, and an automated milking survey to all Wisconsin dairy farmers. For more information, see the Appendix for responses and methodology.

How important is water quality for a “good farmer”? 

Dairy farmers said it is very important for a good farmer to improve soil health (average response 4.2 on a scale of 1 not at all important to 5 extremely important), minimize nutrient runoff (4.0) and consider watershed health (3.8). In contrast, farmers on average said it was only a little to somewhat important to have the highest milk production (2.5) and use the latest technology (2.2) and equipment (1.8).

How concerned are dairy farmers about water quality?

Dairy farmers were somewhat concerned about water quality (3.3) and more concerned about farm profitability (4.0), on average.

Water quality and carbon policy perspectives

Local, state and federal governments and the private and nonprofit sectors can consider many policy options for improving water quality and soil health outcomes from dairy farmers. Perhaps not surprisingly, farmers supported paying farmers for improved environmental outcomes. A higher percentage supported water quality payments than carbon storage payments. More farmers supported than opposed the idea of providing the same level of insurance for pasture and forage as for corn and soybeans. Respondents were fairly evenly split on more insurance support for pasture. While 30% supported tougher enforcement of water quality laws, 40% opposed it. A substantial proportion said they neither support nor oppose many of the policies, reflecting a moderate level of ambivalence, which could reflect uncertainty about the policy option or its effectiveness.

Policy support among graziers and non-graziers

Over one third (39%) of dairy farmers said they do not graze livestock, while 32% grazed but did not rotate livestock intensively, and 22% grazed at least some of their animals and rotated them every 4 days or more frequently, which we called intensive rotational graziers. Intensive rotational grazing can reduce runoff and improve soil health when managed well. We asked farmers if they grazed livestock and how often they moved their cattle. Intensive graziers move their livestock every 1 to 4 days, while non intensive graziers move livestock less often. We found that non graziers supported paying farmers more for improved water quality outcomes at higher levels than either intensive rotational or non intensive graziers. Half (53%) of intensive graziers supported requiring some grazing on farms, but only 29% of non intensive graziers and 9% of non graziers supported it.


This report is supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture work was supported by Grassland 2.0, a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Systems grant (#2019-68012-29852), National Science Foundation Innovations at the Nexus of Food Energy and Water Systems (EAR 1855996), and University of Wisconsin Sea Grant (NA18, OAR 4170097).