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MegaMilk: Charting Consolidation in the U.S. Dairy Industry

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MegaMilk: Charting Consolidation in the U.S. Dairy Industry

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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Over time, small farm production has been replaced by that of bigger and more consolidated “megafarms”—a move that can be attributed to the many benefits that scale brings, such as lower costs of production and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)
Herd size199219972002200720122017
1-9 milk cows0.9%0.7%0.6%0.4%0.4%0.4%
10-49 milk cows19.5%13.8%9.2%6.8%5.9%3.6%
50-99 milk cows29%24.5%19.1%13.8%11.1%8.6%
100-199 milk cows19%18%15.4%12.8%10.6%9.4%
200-499 milk cows13.7%15.3%14.7%13.8%12%12%
500-999 milk cows8%10.2%12.2%12.5%11.3%10.7%
>999 milk cows9.9%17.5%28.8%39.9%48.7%55.2%
Total 100%100%100%100%100%100%

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.

Changing Tastes

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.

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Environment

Mapped: How Much of the World is Covered by Croplands?

Where are the world’s croplands located? This detailed map highlights the world’s cropland cover as of 2019.

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Detailed map of the world’s cropland cover as of 2019.

Mapping Cropland Cover Around the World

Over the last 50 years, the world’s human population worldwide has grown exponentially.

And this population explosion brought greater food production needs with it, through livestock breeding, cropland expansion, and other increases in land use.

But how evenly is this land distributed globally? In this graphic, Adam Symington maps global croplands as of 2019, based on a 2021 scientific paper published in Nature by Peter Potapov et al.

The World’s Croplands

Croplands are defined as land areas used to cultivate herbaceous crops for human consumption, forage, and biofuel. At the start of the 21st century, the world’s croplands spread across 1,142 million hectares (Mha) of land.

Some of these croplands have since been abandoned, lost in natural disasters, or repurposed for housing, irrigation, and other infrastructural needs.

Despite this, the creation of new croplands increased overall cropland cover by around 9% and the net primary (crop) production by 25%.

Africa and South America Lead Croplands Expansion

In 2019, croplands occupied 1,244 Mha of land worldwide, with the largest regions being Europe and North Asia and Southwest Asia at around 20% of total cover each.

Interestingly, even though Africa (17%) and South America (9%) held lower percentages of the world’s croplands, they saw the highest expansion in croplands since 2000:

RegionCropland Area
(Mha, 2000–03)
Cropland Area
(Mha, 2016–19)
Change (Mha)
Africa155.1208.3+53.2
South America75.5112.6+37.1
Southwest Asia237.3244.8+7.5
Australia and New Zealand37.340.3+3.0
North and Central America192.1193.9+1.8
Europe and North Asia252.3253.2+0.9
Southeast Asia192.7191.1-1.6
World1,142.31,244.2+101.9

South American nations including Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay witnessed a steep rise in crop production between 2000 and 2007. Agricultural growth in the region can be attributed to both modern agricultural technology adoption and the production of globally demanded crops like soybeans.

A similar expansion in croplands within Sub-Saharan African countries at the start of the 21st century continues to persist today, as producers ramp up crop production for both exports and to try and alleviate food scarcity.

Much of these the world’s croplands were once forests, drylands, plains, and lowlands. And this loss in green cover is clearly seen across Africa, South America, and parts of Asia.

However, some regions have also witnessed tree plantations, orchards, and aquaculture replacing former croplands. One such example is Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and indeed Southeast Asia was the only region that saw an overall decline in cropland cover from 2000 to 2019.

Moving Towards Sustainable Agriculture

The expansion of croplands has also come at a cost, destroying large stretches of forest cover, and further contributing to wildlife fragmentation and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, hope for more sustainable development is not lost. Nations are finding ways to improve agricultural productivity in ways that free up land.

As global demand for food continues to increase, agricultural expansion and intensification seem imminent. But innovation, and a changing climate, may elevate alternative solutions in the future.

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