Farm Horizons, June 2015

By Starrla Cray

Old McDonald may have had a cow, a chicken, a horse, a donkey, and an assortment of other animals, but today’s farms are often larger and more specialized.

According to the Dairy Farming Today website, 85 percent of milk in the US is produced by farms with more than 100 cows.

“They’re getting bigger,” said Dassel resident James Salfer, University of Minnesota Dairy Extension Educator. “Part of that is something called margin compression. Profit per pound, on average, has been shrinking.”

As a result of escalating input costs, many farmers have chosen to expand as a way to maintain their standard of living, Salfer explained.

“The cost of living has gone up exponentially. For farmers, the cost of living has probably gone up a little more than the average person because they have to pay their own health insurance, unless their spouse works off the farm,” he added.

Another reason for expansion is flexibility. On larger operations, workers are hired to help with milking and other chores, which allows the farmer to keep more “normal” hours.

“It used to be that community events were scheduled around dairy farmers’ hours,” Salfer said.

Now, many meetings and activities are during the evening milking time, and it can be tough for dairy farmers to attend without hired help.

Dropping and doubling

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that between 1970 and 2006, the number of farms with dairy cows fell “steadily and sharply,” from 648,000 operations in 1970 to 75,000 in 2006. In that same time frame, total dairy cows fell from 12 million to 9.1 million.

Total milk production rose, however, because milk production per cow doubled (from 9,751 to 19,951 pounds per year).

One massive agricultural center, Riverview Dairy, includes five dairy operations totaling more than 34,500 cows, according to the Star Tribune. The Morris-based operation includes modern dairy farms, calf ranches, and beef feedlots in Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

Manure from Riverview Dairy goes into a methane digester, where methane is captured and later sold to a power company, the Dairy Star reported in a March 19 article. Manure solids are made into bedding for free stalls.

Riverview Dairy’s operation has 92 family and employee owners. The farm is not typical, as most (97 percent) of dairy farms are family-owned and operated, according to the Dairy Farming Today website.

The largest US dairy farms have more than 15,000 cows, but the average herd size is still less than 100.

Little farms disappearing

Farms with fewer than 30 cows are disappearing rapidly. The USDA reports that these farms still accounted for more than a quarter of all dairy operations with milk cows in 2006, but only provided about 1 percent of total dairy production.

In Minnesota, the top county for milk production is Stearns, followed by Winona, Morrison, Wabasha, Otter Tail, Goodhue, Stevens, Todd, Benton, and Fillmore.

Historically, many dairy farms have been located near the Mississippi River, due to pasture land access and good soil for growing crops, Salfer said.

Currently, California leads dairy production in the US, followed by Wisconsin, New York, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington.

Although many areas of America have dairy operations, the upper Midwest has several advantages for this industry, Salfer said, including plenty of water, land that can use manure, lower feed costs, and a climate that’s not too hot for cows.

In the future, Salfer said he expects to see farm sizes in Minnesota continue to grow modestly.

“We’re going to continue to see dairy farms move to the Midwest,” Salfer said.

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