The traditional view of rural America is of a red barn, dairy cows grazing in the pasture, and family members working side-by-side.
That slice of nostalgia is getting more and more difficult to conjure up as major changes rock the dairy industry.
Small family dairy farms are apparently on the way out, according to Census of Agriculture figures released in April. But while the number of dairy farms is decreasing, the number of dairy cows is increasing.
For example, in 2002 there were 9.1 million dairy cows in the U.S. In 2017, there were 9.5 million dairy cows.
Meanwhile, the number of dairy farms has decreased from 91,989 in 2001 to 54,599 in 2017.
In other words, fewer farms are milking more cows. Bigger and bigger dairy farms and herds seem to be the future of the industry.
In the Midwest, for instance, the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin reported that the number of dairy cows in Minnesota has decreased 4.3 percent, while the number of dairy farms has dropped by 44 percent.
However, in both Iowa and Wisconsin, the number of cows has increased while the number of farms has decreased, mirroring the nationwide trend.
“It’s definitely a sign of consolidation,” Dave Buck, Goodhue County dairy farmer and president of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, told Agri News. “And the driving factor of this is economics.”
There is economy in scale in the dairy business. Hence, farms and herds keep getting bigger. Minnesota dairy farms of 50 or more cows have nearly doubled, going from 65 15 years ago to 115 in 2017.
At the same time, medium-size dairy farmers are faced with having to hire farm workers in a tight labor market and with shrinking dairy prices.
Smaller farms can hold on with all family members at work. But, Buck said, too often one adult member of the family has to work off the farm to secure health insurance.
Is it too late to reverse these trends? An improved health care system would benefit farm families. To attain those and other positive reforms, though, dairy farmers and their organizations need to campaign intelligently at state and national levels of government.
Otherwise, the culture farmers cling to, and the way of life they love, is facing a slow demise. The traditional view of the American farm will be rarer and rarer.