MegaMilk: Charting the Consolidation of the Dairy Industry
Today’s dairy industry looks very different to how it did just 30 years ago.
Milk production in the U.S. has increased by a whopping 50% over that time frame—yet, the total number of dairy farms has dropped by three-quarters.
Fewer and larger farms now have the lion’s share of all U.S milk cow inventory. While they have the ability to produce more competitively priced dairy products and provide more value to consumers, it is causing financial devastation for small farmers.
The graphic above uses data from the USDA to chart the rapid consolidation of the American dairy industry between 1992 and 2017.
The End of the Small Dairy Farmer?
In the U.S., the dairy industry is one of the fastest consolidating industries in comparison to almost all other agricultural sectors.
Between 1992 and 2017, small commercial farms with 10-99 cows saw an average decline of 70%. These farms accounted for 48.5% share of all U.S. milk cows in 1992. In 2017, that number stood at just 12.2%.
Over time, small farm production has been replaced by that of bigger and more consolidated “megafarms”—a move that can be attributed to the many benefits that scale brings, such as lower costs of production and the potential to compete in the international market.
|Share of U.S. milk cow inventory (by year)|
|1-9 milk cows||0.9%||0.7%||0.6%||0.4%||0.4%||0.4%|
|10-49 milk cows||19.5%||13.8%||9.2%||6.8%||5.9%||3.6%|
|50-99 milk cows||29%||24.5%||19.1%||13.8%||11.1%||8.6%|
|100-199 milk cows||19%||18%||15.4%||12.8%||10.6%||9.4%|
|200-499 milk cows||13.7%||15.3%||14.7%||13.8%||12%||12%|
|500-999 milk cows||8%||10.2%||12.2%||12.5%||11.3%||10.7%|
|>999 milk cows||9.9%||17.5%||28.8%||39.9%||48.7%||55.2%|
The Need For a Survival Strategy
While small dairy farmers simply cannot keep up with larger farms encroaching on their turf, they also have fluctuations in dairy prices to contend with. Milk prices fell in 2018, narrowing the gap between milk prices and feed costs so much that another wave of farm closures ensued.
To make matters worse, many small dairy farmers are close to retirement age, and according to the USDA, exits are more likely if the farm operator is 60 or older.
Despite the hardship facing small dairy farmers, analysts suggest that consumer backlash against large-scale production could present opportunities for small dairy farmers to create premium artisanal products. However, such initiatives would be entirely dependent on the state of the economy and where consumer’s values lie.
The Wider Implications
With milk production shifting to larger farms, a range of both direct and indirect impacts are being felt across the country.
For example, milk production is now predominantly focused in fewer states such as California and Wisconsin, which together accounted for almost 33% of all U.S. milk production in 2018.
In larger farms, the herds are typically confined to tight spaces— rather than grazing in pastures—making animal welfare an issue for many of these farms. Concern over waste contamination and air pollution also brings the environmental sustainability of larger farms into question as they come under more pressure to reduce their impact on the planet.
Looking beyond the production of milk, changing consumer preferences could result in the most transformative effects on both large and small scale dairy farmers.
While rising populations are increasing the demand for dairy, per capita milk consumption declined by 24% between 2000 and 2017 in the United States. Consequently, the largest dairy producer in the country, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy in 2019, followed by another major milk producer, Borden Dairy, just two months later.
Experts claim that changing consumer preferences, along with competition from other beverage categories, are responsible for 90% of the total dairy decline.
No Country for Old Farms
The confluence of changing economics and an aging population of farmers has brought the U.S. dairy farming industry to a tipping point, and the near future is likely to bring a fresh wave of dairy farm closures.
I don’t see anything that would give them hope at this point. The best advice I can give to these folks, dairy farmers, is to sell out as fast as you can.
– Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid
As smaller farms continue to disappear from America’s rural landscape, the impacts of consolidation will not only affect dairy farmers, but entire rural communities too.
Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years
The Western U.S. is no stranger to droughts. But this year’s is one of the worst yet. Here’s a historical look at U.S. droughts since 1999.
Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years
The Western U.S. is experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts in the last 20 years.
Temperatures from California to the Dakotas are currently hovering around 9-12°F above average—but how bad is the situation compared to past years?
This animated map by reddit user /NothingAbnormalHere provides a historical look at droughts in the U.S. since 1999, using data and graphics from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM).
What is the U.S. Drought Monitor?
Over the last two decades, the USDM has been tracking, measuring, and comparing droughts across America.
While droughts can be difficult to classify and standardize, there are various factors that can be used to gauge when a region is experiencing drought. These include measurements of snowpack levels, soil moisture, and recent precipitation.
To track these conditions (and make sense of them), the USDM synthesizes data from a plethora of meteorological sources, including the Palmer Drought Severity Index and the Standardized Precipitation Index.
From there, conditions are broken down into categories, ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought). A map is released each week that shows which states are experiencing drought, and to what degree.
Where Are The Most Drought-Prone Areas?
According to a map created by climatologist Becky Bolinger (which is published on Drought.gov), Arizona and Nevada are the most historically drought-prone states—the two have experienced drought more than 50% of the time tracked by the USDM.
California is high on the list as well, with the state experiencing drought at least 40% of the time.
As the historical data shows, the West is no stranger to droughts. However, this year’s drought has become particularly worrisome because of its intensity and breadth.
Right now, more than a quarter of the West is experiencing a D4 level drought—a new record. To help put things into perspective, here’s a look at how much overall land area in the West has been in drought, since 2000:
When a region is experiencing a D4 drought, possible impacts include:
- Water Scarcity
Lower reservoirs, combined with decreased snowpack lead to water shortages.
- Crop losses
Water shortages mean less water for fields, which can lead to acres of fallow (unused) farmland.
Dry conditions and lack of moisture increase the risk of wildfires.
Is This the New Norm?
This record-breaking drought is wreaking havoc across the West. In California, reservoirs have about half as much water as they usually do, and crop failures are happening across Colorado.
The worst part? Some experts believe that this could be the new normal if human-driven climate change continues to increase average temperatures across the globe.
The Uses of Corn: Industries Affected by High Corn Prices
Corn has many uses that make modern life possible. This infographic breaks down U.S. corn usage in 2020.
Corn Beyond the Cob
Corn or maize is the second most-produced crop in the world, and it’s more than just a staple in our diets.
From the sweetener in our coffees to the ethanol that powers our vehicles, corn has hundreds of uses. Consequently, high corn prices have a domino effect that can affect many supply chains and possibly even increase the cost of our weekly groceries, especially if they include tortilla chips.
This infographic uses data from the National Corn Growers Association to break down U.S. corn use by segment in 2020, and the products that a bushel of corn can produce.
The Uses of Corn in the U.S.
While corn on the cob is quite popular, not all corn is sweet. There are five major types of corn grown around the world, and each one differs in taste and uses. Of these, yellow dent corn or field corn accounts for the majority of commercial U.S. production.
Here’s a breakdown of U.S. corn usage in 2020:
|Segment||Bushels Used (millions)||% of Usage (2020)|
|Ethanol (Animal Feed)||1,075||7.4%|
Corn accounts for more than 96% of U.S. feed grain use and production. As a result, animal feed makes up nearly 40% of the country’s corn usage. This is because corn is a rich source of carbohydrates, and in combination with protein from soybeans, it can make for an effective diet for livestock.
In the United States, federal mandates require vehicles to use a blend of gasoline and biofuels like ethanol—94% of which is produced from the starch in corn grain. Therefore, a large portion of U.S. corn goes into ethanol production.
Interestingly, the ethanol distillation process produces a co-product known as dried distillers grain, which serves as low-cost, protein-rich animal feed for livestock. On average, the U.S. ethanol industry produces around 90,000 tons of distillers grains each week.
Animal feed and ethanol production collectively make up around 73% of U.S. corn usage. Other uses of corn include the production of sweeteners, starch, cereal, and alcoholic beverages like whiskey.
Breaking Down U.S. Corn Exports
The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and exporter of corn and accounted for roughly 36% of exports in 2020.
Up until 2019, the majority of U.S. corn exports went to Mexico, Japan, and Colombia. China wasn’t among the top 10 destinations, but this changed in 2020.
Between January 2020 and 2021, U.S. corn exports to China increased exponentially, reaching an all-time high in December. China’s massive import appetite is because of a shortage of domestic supplies amid rising demand for feed from its recovering hog-herd, which was hit by the African swine fever in 2018.
Consequently, China became the third-largest importer of U.S. corn in 2020 after Mexico and Brazil. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that China’s corn imports in 2021 will be much higher than 2020 levels, and the majority of those will be sourced from the United States.
The Corn Price Boom
In addition to a drought-induced yield cut in Brazil, rising demand from China has driven corn prices to their highest level in the last eight years.
Since the beginning of 2020, corn prices have increased 68% and stand at around $6.50 per bushel as of May 19th.
The rise in corn prices is likely to affect several industries and could translate into higher prices for our groceries, including cereals, taco shells, and corn syrups. Additionally, it could also push up the price of gas due to its key role in ethanol production.
Corn, in a Bushel
In a world where commodities like corn are often taken for granted, it’s important to think about how valuable it can be.
A single bushel of corn can provide 33 lbs of sweetener, 31.5 lbs of starch, or 22.4 lbs of polymers. It’s also enough to produce around 3 gallons of ethanol fuel and 16 lbs of distillers dried grains for animal feed.
The uses of corn go far beyond the cob, and just like other raw materials, it supports many industries that make modern life possible.
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