High on the list of reasons for weak farm milk prices . . . and it’s easy to make a case it is number one . . . is too many cows.
Within reason, no matter how much exporters are able to export and/or no matter how much Mother Nature takes a bite out of feed quality or quantity, the U.S. dairy industry has more cows than it needs. Hundreds of thousands more . . . entire states worth more.
It’s a situation that a recent long-range USDA forecast sees no likelihood of changing.
Few of the 112 pages in USDA Agricultural Projections 2027 (available for free download) focus on dairying, but those that do, predict basic farm conditions that point to weak milk prices persisting well into the next decade. A two-part graph in the report that is seen above shows why.
The part on the right, the one with a line rising so steadily it could have been drawn using a ruler, is average annual milk production per cow. It has been going up nearly forever and USDA expects it to continue.
The part on the left, total U.S. dairy cow numbers, is the worrisome one.
Cow numbers dipped microscopically in 2013 (all of 9,000 head) just before milk prices went into orbit in 2014. Since then, cow numbers have gone steadily up. The low point in the cow inventory graph was 9.012 million cows in 2004. By comparison, today’s total is estimated to be about 9.400 million, an increase of 388,000 head.
Unfortunately, the report predicts cow numbers will keep rising until they peak at 9.550 million head in 2022, then flatten out. All the while, though, production per cow is expected to keep going up.
The difference in cow number growth between 2004 and USDA’s peak forecast is an astounding 538,000 head. To put that number into perspective, there are 46 entire states that don’t have that many. Only California, Wisconsin, New York, and Idaho have more.
Half a million cows . . . it boggles the mind to imagine what milk prices might do if they didn’t exist.