The shrinking “little class” of dairy farms

Just 20 years ago, farms with less than 100 cows, 135,000 in total, were home to half of the nation’s milk cows. That same group, under 100 cows, had only 17 percent of the total in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of farms with over 1,000 cows tripled to 1,807 farms during that same snapshot in time.

During a 20-year span, the number of small dairy farms has dropped dramatically. And with it, where our cows reside has changed, too. In 1992, 82 percent of all cows called dairy farms with 1 to 499 cows home. By 2012, that number was cut in half and fell to 40 percent. On the flip side, herds with over 500 cows made up only 18 percent of the nation’s dairy herd in 1992. That number climbed threefold to 60 percent by 2012.

Cost structures were the main reason for the shift in herd size. In 2010, it cost dairy farmers with less than 50 cows $16.55 to produce 100 pounds of milk. The cost per hundredweight varied from $15.35 to $14.45 for the herds with 50 to 99 cows and 200 to 499 cows. On the flip side, the cost of production for 100 pounds of milk was $12.76 in the 500 to 999-cow category and dropped to $10.52 for the 2,000-plus cowherds.

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