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USDA: Dairy farms take big hit in 2018

The United States lost 2,731 licensed dairy farms from 2017 to 2018, a drop of 6.5 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Forum News Service file photo

It’s no secret that the U.S. dairy industry is suffering. New statistics help to document the extent of the pain.

The United States lost 2,731 licensed dairy farms from 2017 to 2018, a drop of 6.5 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

The percentage loss was even worse in Minnesota, where the number of dairy operations fell from 2,380 in 2018 to 1.980 in 2017, a 10.2-percent decline, according to USDA.

Blame a further decline in already poor profitability. The median dairy operation tracked by the University of Minnesota Extension earned less than $15,000 in 2018, down from $43,000 in the previous year, according to Minnesota Extension.

Median is the middle number in a list of numbers.

Help is needed quickly, Minnesota dairy farmers say.

“Minnesota dairy farmers and the local businesses they support are depending on much needed relief this year. Minnesota loses if we lose another 10 percent of dairy farmers – the time to act is now,” the Minnesota Milk Producers Association said in a written statement.

In response, the milk group has made three proposals now working their way through the Minnesota Legislature. They are:

  • Providing dairy farmers with long-term tax relief when they sell to cooperatives.
  • Creating state rebates for eligible dairy farmers enrolled in the federal dairy margin coverage program.
  • Awarding state grants to dairy farmers who have implemented conservation practices.

The dairy industry has been struggling with poor prices and profitability for four years. Financial conditions deteriorated even further in 2018 after U.S. trade policies led to retaliatory tariffs on U.S. dairy exports, cutting into sales to foreign consumers. That’s contributing to the loss of dairy farms nationwide, with relatively small operations in the East and Midwest especially hard hit, according to USDA statistics.

State numbers

Wisconsin, which still leads the nation in the number of dairy farms, had the biggest numerical decline, falling from 9,090 in 2017 to 8,500 in 2018, a loss of 590 operations.

Other states with big numerical declines were Pennsylvania, which lost 370 farms; New York, which lost 280; and Michigan, which lost 230.

South Dakota and Montana lost dairy farms, too.

The number of licensed dairy herds in South Dakota fell from 225 in 2017 to 215 in 2018.

In Montana, the number of dairy farms dropped from 65 in 2017 to 60 in 2018.

North Dakota’s licensed dairy herds held steady at 80.

Despite the drop in the number of dairy farms, 2018 U.S. milk production in the 23 major dairy states stood at 218 billion pounds, 1 percent more than in 2017.

That reflects the longstanding trend of increasing per-cow production. In 2018, milk production per cow averaged 23,149, 235 pounds more than in 2017.

USDA also reported that the average number of milk cows on U.S. farms in 2018 stood at 9.4 million head, down 0.1 percent from a year earlier. Even so, the average annual number of cows has increased 2.1 percent since 2009, which, along with increased per-cow production, has contributed to excess milk supplies and poor prices.

California, home to a number of extremely large dairies, continues to lead the nation in milk production. Farmers in the state produced 3.51 billion pounds in 2018, up from 3.48 billion pounds a year earlier.

Minnesota ranked seventh, with 2018 milk production of 848 million pounds, up from 835 million pounds a year earlier. Why the increase in milk production despite the 6.5-percent decline in the number of farmers? Milk production per cow rose from 1,835 pounds in 2017 to 1,885 pounds in 2018.

South Dakota farmers produced 235 million pounds of milk in 2018, up from 221 million in 2017. Again, increased per-cow production more than offset the number of lost farms.

North Dakota and Montana were not among the 23 states included in USDA's annual milk production statistics.

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