Dairy industry keeping watchful eye on milk consumption

Fewer cows, but milk production up in Minnesota over last year.

Dairy cows at Daley Farms near Lewiston, Minn., on July 24. Andrew Link / Forum News Service

So far, so good for Minnesota dairy producers. But what comes next in the coronavirus pandemic remains to be seen, an industry official said.

"We just don't know yet how demand will hold up," given social distancing that that will discourage or even prevent consumers from visiting stores to shop, said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association.

To this point, however, demand and sales seemed to have held their own, he said.

And there is no sign of production slowing down.

Minnesota dairy producers raised milk production from 765 million pounds in February 2019 to 794 million pounds in February 2020, an increase of 3.8%, according to monthly statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.


Part of the increase was due to the additional day in February this year. But dairy production rose for the month even without the extra day.

An increase in output per cow, from 1,700 pounds in February 2019 to 1,785 pound in February 2020, accounted for the increase. That reflects the longstanding trend toward greater efficiency and per-cow production in the U.S. dairy industry.

Poor milk prices have hammered Minnesota dairy producers in recent years. The number of licensed dairy farms in the state fell from 3,258 in early 2017 to 2,448 in early 2020, a decline of 810.

Given that, "Some people might be surprised" by the February increase in Minnesota milk production, Sjostrom said.

What isn't always recognized, however, is that many dairy cows on farms that go out of businesses end up other dairy farms that continue to operate, he said.

Minnesota had 445,000 dairy cows this February, a relatively modest 5,000-head drop from the same month in 2019. The increase in per-cow production was more than enough to offset that 5,000-head decline.

Dairy production rose from February 2019 to February 2020 nationwide and in South Dakota, too, even taking the extra day into account.

South Dakota's monthly February 2020 production was just under one-quarter of what Minnesota dairy cows produced in the month.


It's too early to predict how the coronavirus pandemic will affect consumption of dairy products, Sjostrom said.

The longstanding trend has been Americans drinking less milk, with annual per-capita consumption falling from 197 pounds in 2000 to 146 pounds in 2018, while also eating more cheese and other dairy products. Whether the limited shelf life of milk will discourage consumers from buying it or possibly encourage shoppers into buying dairy products that can be stored much longer, or both, are key question for the dairy industry in coming weeks, he said.

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