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The future of the family dairy farm has long been the production of raw milk for direct consumption and the latest United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures on the decline of conventional dairies shows that this is more true than ever. Earlier this year, USDA released a report showing that the number of licensed dairy herds in the U.S. declined by over 2,500 from 2019 to 2020 with the figure at the end of 2020 being 31,657.1 By comparison, in 2003 there were over 70,000 dairies in the country;2 going back to 1955, there were 600,000 dairy herds in the U.S.3
The growth in the average herd size, the expansion of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in many parts of the country, and the increase in milk production per cow—along with poor pay prices and the higher costs of inputs—have all contributed to moving the family farm out of the conventional dairy business.
According to a recent issue of Hoard’s Dairyman, fluid (pasteurized) milk sales dwindled to a 62-year low, marking the lowest sales volume since 1958 when the U.S. population wasn’t much more than half of what it is today.4 Recent USDA statistics indicate that the amount of milk the average American drinks has declined more than 40 percent since the mid-70s.5
In a growing number of states (e.g., Montana, Tennessee and Wyoming), it’s possible that there are more dairy farms producing raw milk for direct consumption than for pasteurization. As states continue to legalize the sale or distribution of raw dairy products other than milk and aged cheese (both Alaska and Montana passed bills in 2021 legalizing the distribution or sale of all raw dairy products), this trend will accelerate.
1. USDA-NASS. (2021, February). Milk Production. [PDF]. National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA. p. 18. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Todays_Reports/reports/mkpr0221.pdf
2. Nepveux, M. (2021, February 26). USDA report: U.S. dairy farm numbers continue to decline. Farm Bureau. https://www.fb.org/market-intel/usda-report-u.s.-dairy-farm-numbers-continue-to-decline
3. Fallert, R.F., Blayney, D.P., & Miller, J.J. (1990, March). Dairy: Background for 1990 farm legislation. (Staff report AGES 9020). Commodity Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. p. v. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/41851/50675_ages9020.pdf?v=42087
4. Geiger, C. (ed.). (2020, September 29). Washington Dairygrams – September 25, 2020. Hoard’s Dairyman. https://hoards.com/article-30898-washington-dairygrams-september-25-2020.html
5. Falat, B. (2021, August 9). Number of dairy farms continue to decrease. WAOW TV-9 News; https://waow.com/2021/08/09/number-of-dairyfarms-continue-todecrease/.