updated 7/24/2006 6:40:15 PM ET 2006-07-24T22:40:15

After two decades of steadily declining numbers of dairy cows in America's Dairyland, the trend is slowly reversing itself, farm experts say.

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Wisconsin has 1.243 million dairy cows, up about 8,000 from a year ago, not even a 1 percent increase but still significant, said University of Wisconsin dairy economist Robert Cropp.

“It's the first time there has been an increase in cow numbers since the early 1980s,” he said. “The reason that's good news is that Wisconsin has been losing milk production and losing cows, and it has been a great concern for the industry.”

Wisconsin once led the nation in milk production before losing the distinction to California.

Dave Loucks, a 55-year-old fourth-generation dairy farmer from Abbotsford, expanded his herd from 225 cows to 350 cows and expects to have 400 in the near future.

“If you are going to be a progressive nowadays, you have to grow. It is never-ending,” he said.

But Loucks thinks the growth in Wisconsin's dairy herd isn't too significant and merely shows the industry has stabilized. Still, he has noticed more farmers in Clark County near his home.

“The main reason is out-of-state farmers have come in and purchased these smaller farms that had been retired and putting them back to work,” he said.

He also notes a down side to the growth: More cattle means more milk, and that usually results in lower prices and less profit for farmers, Loucks said.

University of Wisconsin dairy economist Ed Jesse said the upswing in cow numbers started last spring, stimulated in part by record milk prices that topped $20 per hundredweight _ or about 12 gallons _ in 2004.

“We are not going to go back to the last 15 years where we were losing cows at a pretty rapid pace,” Jesse said. “That has got to be positive whether you are a dairy farmer looking at the future of the industry or you are a processor looking at the available supply of milk.”

Dairy cow numbers peaked at 2.36 million in Wisconsin in the mid-1940s, according to Jesse. By 1988, there were 1.7 million — when milk production in the state hit its high at 25 billion pounds. The herd decline continued to 1.235 million cows in early 2005. Total production last year was 22.5 billion pounds.

“We will never see more than 2 million cows again because the productivity of the herds is so much higher,” Jesse said, citing genetics and better feed and nutrition as the biggest factors.

Right now, growth in demand for dairy products is due mostly to a growing population and not because of an increase in per capita consumption, he said.

Jesse said the big question is whether a steady growth in Wisconsin cow numbers continues, given a cooling off in prices caused by increased U.S. production and the continued expansion of the industry in the West and Southwest.

California and Idaho each added 30,000 more dairy cows from a year ago, he said. New Mexico increased 35,000, Texas added 13,000 and Arizona gained 10,000, Jesse said. Minnesota has 5,000 fewer.

But Jesse believes Wisconsin can once again produce 25 billion pounds of milk a year, maybe more.

“We are not going to increase cow numbers certainly as rapidly as we do milk production per cow,” he said.

Shelly Mayer, who milks 70 cows at a fourth-generation farm near Slinger, said the growth in the dairy herd represents a renewed confidence in the future.

“When positive things happen, it does fuel the engine,” she said.

Her herd hasn't expanded in recent years, but its average production has grown from about 17,000 pounds per cow to 26,000 pounds, she said.

“That was our way of growing our business,” said Mayer.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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