Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It isn't "Big Milk's" Fault, it's the "Big Picture"

NPR posted an article 2 weeks ago "As Big Milk moves in, Family-Owned U.S. Dairy Farms Rapidly Fold." This article highlighted a Vermont dairy farmer who was selling his cows, exiting the industry like so many other farms in the country.  The article goes onto to describe from the farmer's perspective that large dairies are producing more milk, more economically and forcing smaller family farms out of business.  It took me some time to come up with an adequate response to this article because my first reaction was a heart wrenching, blood boiling one.  "Big milk" isn't the issue in this story, it is more of a "Big picture" issue for U.S. dairy farmers, no matter the size or scale. 

It's no secret that dairy farming is a capital intense industry but what does that REALLY mean?  It means that in order to produce any amount of milk, there are so many large and expensive purchases that need to be made.  Everything from cows that cost $1500 or more each to vacuum pumps that make it possible to milk cows and move milk to the cooling tanks that cost over $5000.  Add a new barn for 150 cows that might cost over $400,000 and a parlor that is also $400,000.  These prices aren't top of the line either.  If a dairyman wants to add technology to his farm, those prices go even higher.   To try to control these costs, often, brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, uncles, and grandparents are joining to form farm family companies.  This means that the over all cost of the farm can be spread over more family members and allows for younger family members to have a chance to farm like their elders.  97% of all dairy farms are family own and operated. 

Another way to stay in the business is diversification.  Many dairy farmers have a spouse that has an off farm job that pays for family expenses and health insurance.  Some dairies are diversifying into producing other agricultural products like beef, sheep, and pigs.  Maybe those farms are making their own cheese and yogurt.   I know locally many farmers that are raising vegetable crops to make extra income to survive.  Many others are capitalizing on markets for organic milk, noting that all milk is milk, safe and nutritious but that there are consumers willing to pay more money for organic milk and these farmers are willing and able to produce it. 

Dairy farming is very difficult to start and it is even harder to continue doing, especially with the volatile milk prices and consumers that are demanding more from already stressed farmers.   Consumers demands are a good thing in most cases, encouraging sustainable practices and improved efficiencies but these demands often come in the form of expensive regulations that make paper work a full time job for most dairy farmers.  Innovation is expensive and often in order to implement innovations a dairy farmer will have to increase his milk production either through adding more cows and/or increasing the amount of milk produced per cow.  The great news is that dairy farmers are producing more milk with less resources, leaving a smaller carbon footprint than our predecessors but this increased milk is also keeping milk prices low. 

Another factor is that the average American is falling short on getting their 3 servings of dairy each day and we are also seeing continued decreasing in consumption of fluid good old fashion white milk.  Truth is that consumers are no longer having meals as families and as a result they are not drinking milk with their dinners but soft drinks and water instead.  If each American had 3 servings of dairy the impact on family dairy farmers would be huge!  So the question becomes, as a consumer, what can you do to save these family dairy farmers???
  • Drink Milk! 3 servings each day for your health! It's local, traveling within a 200 mile radius of the store you buy it at and from cow to table in 48 hours!
  • Understand the issues of sustainability and environment that face farmers.  In order to achieve these goals there has to be extra income to pay for these innovations and that income usually comes in the form of more milk. 
  • Understand that technology that makes the quality of life better for a dairy farmer costs a lot of money and that makes it very difficult for smaller farmers to add technology to their farms.
  • Advocate for your local farmers by telling your friends about how great and local milk is!  It takes all sizes of farms to feed the world, we need all farms!
  • Understand that multi-generational farms allow for small farms to be packed into larger farms, which provides technology and innovation.   We're doing more with less!
  • Spread the word that all farms are reducing their carbon footprint and making a real impact on the environment, which is good for everyone!!!
It's not "big milk" as much as it is the "big picture" so pour and glass of cold milk and support your local dairy farmers!!!  Help keep them in business for their next generations of dairy farmers!


  1. Well written. Little or big dairy....doesn't matter...it's the quality of the product and the treatment of the animals that a farmer strives for. Visit a local dairy farm and see first hand the labor and love that goes into the glass of milk on yourtable.Thank you to all the dairy industry people involved in getting that glass of fresh milk to you daily.

    1. Thank you! And you are right! Go out and visit those farms! Dairy farmers want consumers to know what they are doing and how much they care!

  2. Well written article. Some of these same issues dealing with Capitol, labor, and economics are affecting the rest of the agriculture as well. Thank you for taking the time to write and post it. Our story in AG is a good one, and it affects everyone who likes to eat!

  3. Thank you for your support and yes, these issues are important to all that are producing food to feed this country! Support a farmer....eat ANY food and enjoy!


I write this blog to share my passion for my cows and farming, please be respectful of that. I reserve the right to delete those comments which portray hate, call names, and are out right disrespectful. If you have an honest question, I will respond, to explain what we do on our farm, why we do it and how we do it. Please read with an open mind. My time to blog is short, as most of our days are spent caring for our beloved cows. Thank you!