The loss of dairy farms has mainly occurred on family farms, although several large farms with more than 5,000 cows have also left the industry. According to data from the US Department of Labor (https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/milk-prices-adjusted-for-inflation), the market price for milk in the period from 2000 to 2020 was mostly at or below break-even prices only short periods of profitability.
Whenever milk prices fell well below the break mark, there were calls and emails from stressed dairy farmers and family members to hotlines for agricultural crises in a region of the Midwest comprising seven states (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin). -even for more than a few months. The hotline managers provided monthly reports to AgriWellness Inc., a not-for-profit organization that I run (www.agriwellnessinc.org).
Dairy farmer suicides also increased during dairy farmers’ worst economic periods. A June 2019 television show Matter of Fact, hosted by Soledad O’Brien, examined the high suicide rate among dairy farmers, including a Wisconsin farmer who was marginalized from a multigenerational family farm.
The International Dairy Foods Association reported on October 8, 2021 (https://www.idfa.org/news/us-dairy-exports-volume-sets-all-time-high-mark-in-2020-according-to – usda) that the dairy industry’s marketing segment achieved record exports of dairy products in 2020 as well as the highest overall annual consumption of dairy products per capita in the US, although liquid milk consumption has been gradually declining for many years.
The record dairy consumption in 2020 was largely driven by the highest consumption of butter in the US, while cheese, ice cream and yogurt consumption also remained high.
Yet dairy farms have decreased by 75% since 1992. Why?
Several factors contribute to the demise of family-sized dairy farms. Economies of scale are an important factor.
Large dairies with well-funded investors gain contractual advantages by supplying fixed amounts of milk all year round. They have more influence in negotiating lower prices than smaller companies.
Large milk processors prefer large dairies because of the lower transportation costs when their milk delivery trucks can make a single stop, while smaller dairy operators have multiple stops for a truckload.
In addition, large farms that keep cows permanently locked in pens and stalls, feed them the same purchased feed every day and breed them all year round can deliver a constant amount of milk, while most family-sized dairies prefer cows that are raised in the spring and summer when they produce more milk and use pastures for grazing, but reduce their production as winter approaches. Consumers buy fewer dairy products in the winter months.
In addition, the amount of milk produced per cow has increased due to improved genetics, which gives large farms an advantage by raising and buying highly productive, albeit expensive, cows. Small dairy farms usually cannot afford such rapid genetic improvements in their cow herds.
Large dairies are also heavily dependent on the cheapest labor, such as foreign immigrants working for low wages, while family-run dairies generally rely on little wage labor and often support more than one farming family.
In general, family-run dairy farms are unfavorably positioned in most raw milk markets unless they find a profitable niche. How can their economic and behavioral well-being be protected?
Several recommendations emerge from the reports of many dairy farmers and from my consultations with dairy organizations:
For certified organic milk producers in particular, niches are developing in the dairy industry, as consumer preferences are increasingly shifting towards organic food.
Although the transition from conventional to certified organic production takes three years, it is easier for family-run businesses to switch to certified organic milk production because they can usually provide their own pastures and other fodder as well as the workforce and “know. how.”
There are shifts in consumer preferences for filtered milk, specialty cheeses and ice cream, especially when these products meet organic standards. Even vodka can be made from the lactose in whey; It has been described as clear in appearance, tasty, not very sweet, and with a soft, delicious creaminess.
Dairy producers benefit from the formation of community support groups that bring together teams of advisors to help farmers make dairy decisions and deal with psychological trauma. The socio-emotional understanding of others alleviates the fears of troubled producers.
Useful information on dairy farming and behavioral health management is available from a number of milk producer organizations such as the Center for Dairy Excellence, the Dairy Girls Network, Dairy Farmers of America, and regional organizations such as the Midwest Dairy Association.
Although farmer suicides appear to be decreasing overall, dairy farmer suicides remain high. It is not easy to be a dairy farmer today.