Moechnig Farms

A cow waits to be milked at Moechnig Farms, a certified organic dairy farm near Lake City.

GOODHUE — Finding a dairy is getting harder and harder.

Since 2001, the number of dairies in the U.S. has dropped by more than 40 percent, falling from 91,989 dairy operations to 54,599 working dairies in 2017, according to the Census of Agriculture, which was released April 11.

That said, there are more dairy cows out there, with 9,103,959 dairy cows in 2002, rising to 9,539,631 in 2017, a bump of 4.8 percent.

So, where are all these new cows? Are fewer farmers and businesses milking more cows?

What’s happening in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa essentially follows that trend.

“It’s definitely a sign of consolidation,” said Dave Buck, a Goodhue County dairy farmer and the president of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. “And a driving factor of this is economics.”

Minnesota has seen the number of farms drop by 44 percent, from 6,474 to 3,644 dairies. Meanwhile, the number of dairy cows in the state has dropped by 4.3 percent from 478,248 to 457,801. In Iowa, the number of dairy operations has also fallen fairly steadily over 15 years, from 3,034 to 1,592 (47.5 percent) though the number of cows has increased 8 percent.

In Wisconsin, the number of dairies dropped by 46.5 percent, falling below 10,000 total dairies for the first time in decades. Still, the number of dairy cows rose a bit from 1.24 million to 1.28 million, an increase of about 3 percent.

“I think the smaller ones have been going out,” Buck said. “Over the last 18 months, it’s not just the smaller ones. There are quite a few 200- to 500-cow dairies that have quit the past few months.”

According to the census, since 2012 the number of dairies with 99 cows or fewer has dwindled by more than 1,000 operations. These represent small, family-run dairies that generally have little to no hired labor.

Buck said the new Farm Bill is geared to helping smaller dairies, those with about 200 cows or fewer. Meanwhile, mid-sized dairies of up to 300 to 500 head is a level where the economics of the dairy business get more difficult.

“It’s the size where you have to start paying full-time labor, and that’s a challenge with the labor situation,” he said. “The last three years have been really challenging for all sizes of dairies. It’s not just the small dairies anymore.”

While the number of cows per dairy in small dairies — those with anywhere from one to 49 cows — has diminished since 2002 from 27.40 to 21.64 as the number of dairies in that category has dropped by nearly half, the reverse is true for large dairies.

The biggest change, perhaps, has come at the large end of the dairy spectrum. Dairies of 500 cows or more have nearly doubled in 15 years, from 65 to 115. More tellingly, the average size of those dairies jumped from 812.02 cows to 1,612.12 cows milked.

Whereas just 11 percent of cows milked in Minnesota used to reside on these large dairies, today, 40.5 percent of Minnesota’s cows get milked on dairies of 500 cows or more.

Buck said part of the reason for the growth of large dairies is the need to pay labor on the farm. Like many small businesses that have trouble hiring, dairies need a change in the country’s immigration policies to include more year-round visas and not just seasonal work.

In the end, Buck said he believes dairy farmers are good for the land, putting hay in the crop rotation and adding natural fertilizer to the ground.

Each dairy cow provides, on average, a certain income. That income is down across all sizes of farms, he said, making paying for any business costs more difficult.

For example, health insurance costs are driving one adult on the farm to work off the farm to get a job with insurance benefits. “Thirty years ago, I had the husband and wife working on the farm, but now that’s more rare.”

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Minnesota Dairies: Big get bigger, smaller diminish

Year 2017 2012 2007 2002
Size 1-49 cows50-99 cows100-199 cows200-499 cows500 or more
Total dairiesTotal dairiesTotal dairiesTotal dairiesTotal dairies 1,4821,160612275115 2,0421,626712258108 2,0361,96577528488 2,7932,2871,10722265
Total cowsTotal cowsTotal cowsTotal cowsTotal cows 32,07778,67377,10084,557185,394 53,640108,35892,76276,823131,729 57,309132,33299,29879,60091,213 76,542158,003128,59562,32752,781
Cows per dairyCows per dairyCows per dairyCows per dairyCows per dairy 21.6467.82125.98307.481,612.12 26.2766.64130.28297.761,219.71 28.1567.34128.13280.281,036.51 27.4069.09116.17280.75812.02

Regional Reporter

Brian Todd is a 1997 graduate of Nebraska-Omaha. He covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties and writes a weekly column about the life of a reporter.