The history of UW-Madison’s contributions to Wisconsin cheese


One of the many beautiful farms along the stretch of Paoli Rd. | Photo by 608today team

From foam cheeseheads to barn-adorned license plates, we all know the Badger State is proud of its dairy-tage, but what if we told you Wisconsin didn’t start out as the dairy state, or that Wisconsin cheese might’ve not taken off if not for the brilliant minds at UW-Madison?

Before becoming Dairyland: Wisconsin wasn’t always the milk + cheese powerhouse that it is today. Before farmers started dabbling in dairy, the Badger State was home to one-sixth of the nation’s wheat in the mid 1800s.

When crop failure + competition started cutting into grain profits, farmers knew they needed to make a change, so a group of dairymen looked to transform Wisconsin agriculture. It was a slow start for aspiring milk producers, but support from local agricultural experts in the late 1800s changed farmland forever.

A boost from UW: In 1890, the Babcock test —invented by UW professor Stephen M. Babcock — gave Wisconsin’s novice dairymen a cheap + efficient tool to measure the butterfat content of milk. This helped ensure consistent, high quality cheese and butter production.


S.M. Babcock alongside his original milk butterfat tester. | Photo via Wisconsin Historical Society

Alongside Babcock, UW agriculture professor William A. Henry discovered new dairy production techniques on a university owned-farm. UW offered courses in Madison for Wisconsinites looking to try their hand at dairy-making. Farmers soon had all they needed to produce the highest quality milk around + garnered rave reviews nationwide.

A new identity: Demand for Wisconsin cheese skyrocketed. By 1915, Wisconsin led America in milk production. In 1940, our state adopted the mantra “America’s Dairyland” + continues to produce 15% of milk, 25% of butter, and 30% of cheeses in the US.

Today, Wisconsin exports cheese around the globe. But for locals looking to snag some in the 608, check out these top locations to grab the best curds in Madison. If Wisconsin was a country, we’d be No. 4 for global cheese production + it all began thanks to some good old-fashioned Badger ingenuity.

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