In addition to writing and editing lots of stories each month for the Wisconsin Agriculturist, I also try to find time to read. No, I haven't read any best sellers or spy novels lately. What I spend most of my leisure time reading are articles in other publications about agriculture. No surprise here, a lot of what I read is about cows. Cows are big and cows still dominate Wisconsin agriculture despite high crop prices.
The other day an article on the front page of the Feb. 22 issue of the Cheese Reporter caught my eye. It was detailing a report recently released by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service summarizing the total number of dairy farms in the U.S. The article broke down farm numbers by size and included what percentage of total milk production each farm size produced in 2012.
I always find articles about statistics interesting. I guess it falls in the category of inquiring minds want to know, or at least my inquiring mind wants to know! I read the article to see if there was anything that surprised me. There were a few things.
•I learned of the 58,000 dairy farms left in the United States at the end of 2012, guess how many have 2,000 cows or more? I thought there are all those big dairies in states like California, Idaho, Texas and Washington and quite a few that I could think of in Wisconsin. Maybe there's between 4,000 and 5,000 herds in the U.S. with 2,000 cows or more? Wrong! There are only 780 farms with 2,000 cows or more in the U.S., down from 800 in 2011. Wow, I guess we're always hearing about these big dairies all the time, there must be more than 780 of them in the entire country, but that's it.
•I learned these 780 big dairies produced 34.7% of total U.S. milk production last year, up from 34.6% in 2011. That's scary. Less than 1,000 large dairies account for more than one-third of all milk produced in this country!
•I also learned that there were 950 operations with 1,000 to 1,999 dairy cows last year, unchanged from 2011. These farms accounted for 15.9% of U.S. milk production in 2012, up from 15.7% in 2011.
•Combined, that means the 1,730 farms milking 1,000 cows or more account for 50.6% of milk produced last year. Of course that means there are 56,270 farms milking 999 cows or less who are producing 49.4% of the nation's milk supply.
I read these statistical stories every year and they always seem to amaze me. I don't know if I forget these numbers from one year to the next or if the numbers are just so shocking I find it hard to get my head around them. It makes me wonder how few dairy farms will there be in 10 years when most of the dairy farmers in my generation will be 65 years or older and will have retired?
Only time will tell, but I suspect the dairy landscape in this country will see more change in the next 10 years than we saw in the previous two decades combined.