How many dairy farms are there in the U.S.? It seems like a simple question, and it feels like someone should have a good answer for it. In fact, there are multiple places we can go to find data on the topic, but the problem is they diverge at times.

On an annual basis, USDA publishes the number of “licensed dairies” in each state. This data is submitted to USDA by state-level agencies and regulators, which means the methodology and reliability of the numbers could be different across the states. But the upside is the data is annual, relatively consistent year to year, and released soon after the year is over.

The other often-cited source is the data we get from the Census of Agriculture that is done every five years, with the most recent being 2012, 2017, and 2022. USDA attempts to identify and contact every dairy farm in the country and asks them questions about production, sales, farm structure, and demographics. If every farm responded to the census, it would be the most reliable data available. Unfortunately, not all farms respond, and USDA has to make assumptions about how many farms actually exist based partly on other survey work they do.

On top of the different sources and methodologies, you also have the question of what constitutes a dairy farm. Based on the census data, there are plenty of farms out there with a few dairy animals that aren’t producing milk (perhaps 4-H heifer raising projects?). There are also a bunch of farms with a few cows that are producing milk, but they aren’t selling any milk and are using it for home consumption. Lastly, you have farms that are selling milk, which is the data that I look at and compare against the number of licensed dairy farms from the USDA.

Where’s the difference?

The number of licensed farms lined up well with the census farms in 2012 and 2017. However, there is a 3,850-farm discrepancy in 2022, with the census saying there are fewer farms than the licensed data suggests.

I asked USDA about this discrepancy, and they hinted that the 2022 census might be underrepresenting small dairy farms. My guess is the annual licensed dairies data is a better estimate of the number of dairy farms in the country. Both sources show a continued down trend in the number of farms, but the census estimate is down 38.7% between 2017 and 2022, while the number of licensed dairies is “only” down 30.5%.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
March 25, 2024
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