Dairy Industry

views updated


DAIRY INDUSTRY. In the early seventeenth century, the first English and Dutch colonists brought cattle with them. Despite the rigors of the environment, cattle proliferated in all the settled areas. Although shelter and feed were in short supply and native grasses were not satisfactory for haymaking, pasture was usually adequate through the summer months. Settlers initially substituted wild marsh hay, straw, and corn fodder for winter feed but later brought over from Europe better pasture grasses and tame hays. The cattle came primarily from England and Holland. There were no specific dairy breeds, and the unimproved stock soon lost weight and shape through poor management and interbreeding. Only in New England, where animals grazed under the care of a town cowherd, was there much supervision. There the towns-people even exercised some control over breeding through communal choice of sires. Elsewhere the cattle, usually identified through earmarks or brands, mostly fended for themselves. Almost every farm and most town households kept one or two cows. Women and children customarily milked the animals, except in winter when the cows dried up. They also manufactured the butter and cheese. Before 1700 some producers regularly exported dairy goods from New England.

By the mid-eighteenth century some areas, such as the Narragansett district, the lower Hudson Valley, and the counties around Philadelphia, had earned reputations for producing prime butter or cheese. Exports had stimulated better management even before the American Revolution, at which time dairies of a dozen or more cows were no longer uncommon. Between 1790 and 1805, cheese exports exceeded one million pounds annually, and by 1812, New York butter wagons regularly traveled as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 1820s, some Ohio cultivators were peddling cheese and butter in small towns along the Ohio River from Wheeling to Louisville. The dairy, nevertheless, remained a seasonal and a household undertaking, a by-product of "general" farming, until the mid-nineteenth century.

Commercial growth was rapid from the late 1820s. In 1840 dairy manufactures, valued at $33.8 million, took place in all thirty states. New York (31 percent), Pennsylvania (9.4 percent), and Massachusetts (7.1 percent) were the largest producers, but relative to population, Vermont and New Hampshire were the most specialized. Outside the northeastern United States, only Ohio and Virginia were large producers. By 1860 American butter output had greatly increased, notably in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and Illinois was a sizable newcomer to the industry. Cheese output, heavily concentrated in Vermont, New York, and Ohio, lagged after 1850. New York produced a quarter of the nation's butter and almost half the cheese in 1860. It also contributed the greater part of cheese exports, which had doubled between 1845 and 1850 to about 15 percent of the national output.

New York remained the heart of "America's dairy-land" until Wisconsin displaced it in the opening decades of the twentieth century. For all the increased output, dairying only became a specialty in areas in which declining grain yields and western competition had undermined the economic basis of the wheat culture. Generally, farmers resisted the more exacting routine of a balanced dairy husbandry, and developments after 1840 brought little improvement in farm management, except as more grass and livestock arrested the depletion of the soil. Although Yankee dairy pundits had long recognized Ayrshires and Jerseys to be superior milkers, most herds were still made up of "native" or "scrub" cattle, the progeny of innumerable crosses upon the old colonial stock. Lewis F. Allen's first American Herd Book (1846) registered Shorthorns, and even in the late 1950s, Charles L. Flint of Massachusetts attributed increases in milk yields to better buildings and more ample feed, not to "improvements in the dairy quality of the stock."

Meanwhile, the perishable nature of milk had limited the city milk trade, the most profitable branch of dairying. City dwellers could get good, bad, and indifferent butter or cheese at corresponding prices, but fresh milk from farm-fed cattle was only available locally in season. Most big-city milk supplies were watered, adulterated, expensive, and more lethal than city water. In spite of the exposés of reformers, beginning with those of Robert M. Hartley in New York City after 1838, many city herds still ate brewery swill and distillery mash in the 1850s. Between 1856 and 1861, Massachusetts outlawed adulteration and slop feeding and instituted nominal inspection. New York and five other states followed suit in the decade after 1862, but until local milk trains, put into operation around Boston and New York City in the early 1840s, had supplanted barges, wagons, and slop-milk systems, little progress could occur.

Gail Borden began to make patented condensed milk in 1859, and within a few years, the unsweetened variety constituted a third of New York City's milk supply. In 1870 Xerxes A. Willard of the American Dairyman's Association hailed it as the solution to New York City's milk problem. Condenseries offered a powerful price incentive for pure milk deliveries, but federal hygiene reports traced 325 outbreaks of typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlet fever to contaminated milk between 1865 and 1895. Dr. Harvey D. Thatcher's sanitary dairy bottle, patented in 1884, and Dr. Henry L. Coit's medically "certified milk," introduced in 1894, eased the problem, but the real solution, pasteurization, was a product of the laboratory, not of technology or regulation.

Demonstrated by a New York philanthropist, Nathan Strauss, in 1893, pasteurized milk became mandatory in a few cities before World War I. Because of opposition from milk producers and sections of the medical profession, the requirement was perfunctory before the 1920s, by which time milk from tuberculin-tested herds was also coming on the market. Finally, between 1924 and 1927, the U.S. Public Health Service developed a model uniform sanitary regulation for voluntary adoption by state and municipal authorities.

A more radical change in the dairy industry began with the shift from farm to factory cheesemaking. Whereas buttermaking was simply a mechanical process of churning gravity-separated cream, cheese-making was a complex chemical process involving precise coagulation, working, and curing of curd into digestible cheese. Few men or women were masters of the art, which explained the unreliability of much farm cheese. The factory enabled expert cheesemakers to process milk gathered from numerous herds into a superior standard article. The factory system of cheese-making, inaugurated by Jesse Williams of Oneida County, N.Y., in 1851, spread during the Civil War decade. Annual output soared to 172 million pounds by 1880, the most notable increase coming in Wisconsin, which already ranked third after New York and Ohio. By 1876 exports of cheddar-type American cheese regularly absorbed half the nation's greatly expanded output. Under leadership of the Wisconsin Dairyman's Association and William D. Hoard, publisher of Hoard's Dairyman, the most prestigious dairy trade paper, Wisconsin became the banner cheese state by 1905 with 1,518 factories.

No such rapid revolution occurred in buttermaking. In 1861 Alanson Slaughter of Orange County, New York, established the first butter factory, or "creamery," but farm production of butter increased until about 1900. Creamery output, notably in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, did not accelerate before the 1880s, when over 3,000 refrigerator cars were already in service between Chicago and eastern terminals. The premium in buttermaking was on scale rather than skill, and both the relative simplicity and the size of creamery operations fostered mechanization and cooperative enterprise. In 1878 Dr. Carl G. DeLaval of Sweden patented a continuous centrifugal cream separator, which proved much more efficient than gravity methods. Furthermore, after 1885 he also marketed small hand separators for use on farms, where the farmer could feed skim milk to hogs. Since most farmers were slow to appreciate the feed value of whey, butter dairying in conjunction with corn-hog raising gained a financial edge over cheese. Nevertheless, it was cheese factory patronage or nothing in the northern areas, where cool summers and a short growing season limited the corn crop in the days before silage and hybrid corn. The early dairy plants were mostly private ventures or partnerships. Many were "mutual benefit associations," some were Granger-type cooperatives, and a few were corporations. Cooperative ownership was common around 1900 in the newer creamery districts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, and cooperatives increased in number and shares of output thereafter. By 1944, however, cheese cooperatives were down a third from the late 1920s, and their output share had fallen from 32 to 16 percent. There were still 1,164 butter cooperatives in 1944: more than twice the number making cheese and five times the number processing evaporated and dried milk.

All dairy producers benefited from a cheap, practical butterfat test perfected by the Wisconsin chemist Stephen M. Babcock in 1890. The test measured the fat content of milk and furnished a more objective and equitable basis for payments to farmers by processing plants and city dealers. Babcock and his associates also did the basic re-search on milk enzymes that culminated after 1903 in the more efficient "cold curing" of cheese. These laboratory triumphs, combined with the growth of domestic cheese consumption, helped dairying recover from the loss of the British market that had followed the export of much sub-standard "skim" and "filled" cheese. Export volume fell by 75 percent between 1881 and 1896. States appointed dairy and food commissions to police the industry, and the promotional energies of dairy producers' associations shifted to lobbying actions to secure tariff protection (1894) and curbs and taxes on oleomargarine. After 1886 federal laws prevented mislabeled or inferior oleo from inundating butter markets, but more wholesome vegetable oleo subsequently made steady inroads on butter sales. By 1950, when Congress repealed the discriminatory Oleomargarine Act of 1902, margarine output was rapidly overtaking that of butter.

Advances in dairy husbandry began in the 1880s with the practice of feeding the animals ensilage, such as unripened corn, clover, and alfalfa. Farmers preserved the green feed in closed pits or tower structures called silos. Silage feeding lengthened the milking season up to 10 weeks, which allowed manufacturing plants to stay open throughout the year. Adaptation of German scientific feeding principles resulted in a balanced dairy ration that combined the nutritive components of various feeds in the proportions required by a cow's flow of milk. The Babcock test helped farmers cull their low-fat producers. Beginning with the rivalries of breed associations in the 1880s, emphasis shifted to raising milk output through official cow testing, extension activity on the part of the agricultural colleges, cooperative herd improvement associations, and disease-eradication and sire-proving programs. Purebred Holstein-Friesians, Jerseys, Guernseys, Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, and, from the 1930s, Red Danish all proved to be excellent dairy cattle, while the dual-purpose breeds, such as Devons, Shorthorns, and Red Polls, lost ground on specialized dairy farms. These farms adopted milking machines in the 1920s and installed cooling equipment later.

Average annual yield per cow climbed from 3,050 pounds of milk in 1890 to 4,508 in 1950, 9,609 in 1970, and 18,204 in 2000. The greatest relative increases occurred on farms with fifty or more cows in new dairy states, such as Florida, Arizona, and California. In 1993 California replaced Wisconsin as the nation's top dairy state and currently produces one-third more milk annually than Wisconsin does. The number of milk cows reached 25.8 million in 1944 but fell to 12.4 million by 1970 and to 9.2 million by 2000. Between 1950 and 1970, the numbers of farms reporting milk cows fell by 80 percent, and thousands of small dairy farmers went out of business. This trend has continued into the twenty-first century as large-scale producers replace small, family-run operations. Nevertheless, milk products, worth more than $21 billion in 2000, were second only to sales of cattle and calves in cash value to American farmers, and that income included the culling of some dairy cattle. In 1997 the dairy was the largest single source of farm income in six states and second largest in five others.

Small-scale dairy manufacturing also went into eclipse. When insulated cars and trucks led to much larger milksheds at processing plants, high-volume plants began to achieve the substantially lower unit costs hitherto enjoyed only by condenseries and "centralizer" creameries. As average size of output increased, however, the number of plants declined, especially since the 1930s. By 1945 over 100 large "flexible" plants already made multiple products, most frequently evaporated milk, butter, and cheese, as cost and price relationships changed.

Concentration in marketing agencies complemented structural changes in farming and manufacture. The mid-nineteenth-century method of consigning products to distant wholesalers on a commission basis gave way to price bargaining on local product exchanges. After 1900 producers grew suspicious of the auction prices and weekly quotations announced by regional boards of trade or call-boards, such as those in Elgin, Illinois, and Plymouth, Wisconsin, which provided the basis for contracts between

buyers and sellers. Some producers formed marketing cooperatives. Distribution channels narrowed in the 1920s when packinghouses such as Armour and Swift and huge corporations such as Borden and National Dairy Products increased their purchases and began to absorb the functions and profit margins of independent dealers, jobbers, and brokers. About 1930 grocery chains such as the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company and Safeway still bought from independents, although, for a period, some chains had tried manufacture on their own account. The nationally advertised brands and packaged items of Fairmont and Beatrice creameries and the Kraft and Phoenix ("processed") cheese companies became part of the cultural environment.

Producers still complained about middlemen's profits, and many still thought that cooperatives were the way to eliminate intermediaries. These cooperatives took on a greater role in distribution and price bargaining. Sales of four of the largest cooperatives, Land O' Lakes, Dairy-men's League, Challenge, and Pure Milk Association, increased 162 percent between 1931 and 1949, but the incentives to large-scale concentration affected cooperatives no less than corporations. From 1950 to 1968, their numbers fell by 43 percent to 1,100. By 1970 there were only 971 dairy cooperatives in the United States, and that number decreased even further to only 264 in 1990. At the same time, the annual net business volume per co operative rose. It is noteworthy that the growth of big business in the manufacture and marketing of dairy products accelerated after the depression of the 1930s, when dairy interests first became the beneficiaries of federal marketing, purchase, and price-stabilization programs.


Per Capita Consumption of Dairy Products
(pounds milk equivalent)
All Dairy
Fluid Milk
and Cream323356347343348321260390400

Meanwhile, although consumers may not be sovereign, they are not altogether without power. Despite efforts by industry lobbies and compliant federal administrations to administer dairy prices and moderate competition from substitutes, consumers have shown a growing preference for margarine, coffee whiteners, whipped toppings, vegetable-fat-filled milk, and nondairy beverages over dairy-based articles. A health-and weight-conscious public has been reducing its overall per capita intake of dairy manufactures and fluid milk (see table), notwithstanding the dietary value of milk minerals and vitamins. The relative fat and cholesterol content, as well as the forms and prices, of different dairy products has affected decisions to reduce purchases of butter, cream, and evaporated milk and to increase consumption of lowfat milks, yogurt, processed and Italian-style cheese, and nonfat dry milk solids. Between the 1950s and 1998, the average American per capita consumption of milk fell 35 percent while the consumption of cheese rose by over three and a half times. Ice cream is an exception, although among all frozen products, ice milk, sherbet, and non-dairy mellorine have gained ground. Thus, the large and complex dairy industry manifests a continuing division of labor, in which larger farms confine their efforts to raw milk production, highly capitalized corporate and cooperative organizations process and distribute milk off the farms, and supermarkets and food stores increasingly retail dairy products to final customers in standard paper or plastic containers. Mid-twentieth-century changes in milk production and in the structure of manufacturing and marketing agencies are a response to rising costs of production, health and sanitary regulations, and changes in demand for dairy products.


Cochrane, Willard Wesley. The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Gough, Robert. Farming the Cutover: A Social History of Northern Wisconsin, 1900–1940. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Hurt, Douglas R. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University, 1994.

Jensen, Joan M. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750–1850. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

McMurry, Sally Ann. Transforming Rural Life: Dairying Families and Agricultural Change, 1820–1885. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Okun, Mitchell. Fair Play in the Marketplace: The First Battle for Pure Food and Drugs. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Eric E.Lampard/a. e.

See alsoAgriculture ; Cattle ; Food and Cuisines ; Food and Drug Administration ; Genetic Engineering ; Pure Food and Drug Movement ; Wisconsin .