Dairy and the Environment: Southeast Farm Sizes

dairy and the environment

We have all heard the argument before by outspoken online accounts regarding dairy and the environment. According to these angry posts, due to their large size, modern dairy farms in the US must greatly contribute to climate change.  

If you pay attention to these posts, the farms are described as somehow vast yet cramped. No one in these threads can understand why these farms are the size they are or why they have the number of working cows they do. But if you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why US dairy farms work the way they do—for efficiency. 

Dairy and the Environment

The actual size of the average Southeast dairy farm does not reach the massive size imagined for this claim. And even these larger farms work differently than how the public imagines. 

According to the USDA, between 1970 and 2006, the number of US dairy farms fell from 648,000 operations in 1970 to 75,000 in 2006, or an 88% decrease. Further, the total US dairy cow population fell from 12 million in 1970 to 9.1 million in 2006. Dairy farms or dairy cows are not as numerous as they once were, yet farmers must feed an even larger population today. 

Between the decrease in farms and the decrease in the working cow population, the farms still in operation had to grow. The average herd size rose from 19 cows per farm in 1970 to 120 cows in 2006. And thanks to improved genetics and care practices, milk production per cow doubled between 1970 and 2006 from 9,751 to 19,951 pounds per year. Despite relatively small but efficient farm sizes, the total milk production and average milk production per farm increased in this timeframe and continues to do so overall. 

Modern dairy farms come in many sizes. The largest US dairy farms have over 15,000 cows, but farms with 1,000–5,000 cows are more common. And don’t be surprised to find Southeast dairy farms with herd numbers in the hundreds, but they aren’t as small as farms go! The smallest class of dairy farms have fewer than 30 cows and accounted for nearly 30% of operations with milking cows in 2006.  

The dairy farm industry has changed even more since 2006. It is the mid-sized and larger farms that contribute more to the national milk totals, so they must work as efficiently as possible to continue producing at the rates they do. 

Importance of Small Dairy Farms

Smaller dairy farms are organized in fundamentally different ways than larger farms. For smaller farms, it is common to grow more feed on the property and raise heifers onsite, with cows grazing in the pasture. Where in the US the farm is located also impacts the operation, as factors like temperature, rainfall, and soil will impact the crops grown and how the herd needs to be cared for.  

It is these intricacies of size and location that showcases a farm’s efficiency and what we will look at in the coming weeks.  

Are you still curious about the claims online around dairy farm sustainability? Next week, we will look deeper at US farms’ sustainable practices, focusing on how dairy farms manage their physical land through resource management. 

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