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Wisconsin is home to about 1.27 million dairy cows.

There’s the state’s growing dominance in the artisan cheese industry, $399 million in dairy exports last year, and the magic and beauty that is the fried cheese curd.

Then there are the environmental and quality-of-life effects of huge cow-milking facilities, lakes drenched in manure-borne phosphorus, and irrigation systems that send millions of gallons of liquid manure arcing over fields like stinky, brown rainbows.

In the battle for dairy dominance, what comes out of the back end of Wisconsin’s estimated 1.27 million dairy cows is a huge liability in the dairy-industry ledger.

I point this out only because Wisconsin’s leaders have been on a mission in recent years to move the state’s dairy industry beyond a historic slogan (“America’s Dairyland”) and a hat (the cheesehead).

Cheesemaking, locally sourced foods and cheese contests are growing in popularity. At UW-Madison, the Center for Dairy Research has launched what is basically an economic development program for dairy products and technologies.

Wisconsin’s milk production grew from 22.3 billion pounds in 2003 to 27.6 billion pounds in 2013 — a new record — and placed the state second only to California.

I was able to identify only one specific dairy industry goal — but when you’re talking dairy, it’s probably the only one that matters:

Under the state’s Dairy 30x20 plan, milk production would increase to 30 billion pounds by 2020.

Unfortunately, no one’s figured out a way to make all those four-legged milk factories stop pooping, and partly as a result, rural Wisconsinites are struggling with the effects of manure spreading and concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Urbanites like us in Madison can’t swim in local lakes because of dangerous buildups of algae and bacteria caused largely by the manure that washes off of farm fields and into the watershed.

Patrick Geoghegan of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board points out that there are half as many dairy cows in Wisconsin today as there were in the 1940s — they just produce way more milk. Of course, there are about 2.8 million more people today in Wisconsin to be perturbed by their presence.

Effective manure-mitigating technologies and practices are numerous enough to allow smart dairy industry growth, according to Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at UW-Madison.

“I think they are headed in a sustainable direction,” he said.

Becky Larson, a UW-Madison assistant professor and expert on bio-waste, agreed but said it’s unlikely the state can reach its dairy production dreams without large dairy operations.

She said one challenge will be making sure regulation keeps up with growth.

“It really comes down to management,” she said.

I’d like to be able to swim in Madison’s lakes, and there’s nothing like a good swim to build an appetite for fried cheese curds.

Here’s to enjoying both without risk to one’s health or one’s environment.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


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