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Published March 18, 2013, 10:47 AM

Long dairy decline

Cow numbers in the Upper Midwest have dropped through the decades.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

At one time, dairy cows were nearly as common as people in rural areas of the Upper Midwest.

No more. Changes in economics and lifestyle have combined to pummel dairy cow numbers in the region.

For every dairy cow in North Dakota today, there were 39 in 1934, when the state had a record 700,000 dairy cows. In January, North Dakota had only 18,000 milk cows, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana also have seen significant decreases in the number of dairy cows:

•Minnesota had 465,000 milk cows in January, down from a record 1.9 million in 1944.

•South Dakota had 92,000 dairy cows in January, down from a record 675,000 in 1934.

•Montana had 14,000 dairy cows in January, down from a record 215,000 in 1934.

Milk cow numbers generally were rising in the Dakotas and Montana until 1934, when drought forced many producers to sell at least part of their herd, according to USDA records.

Use a little caution in interpreting the numbers. Dairy farmers have become more efficient through the years, producing more milk on average per cow.