Milk production is rising even as small dairy farms shut down

Milk production is rising even as small dairy farms shut down

Cows are lead to the milking parlor at Metogga Lake Dairy, a family-run operation, on January 30, 2019, in New Prague, Minn.

Cows are lead to the milking parlor at Metogga Lake Dairy, a family-run operation, on January 30, 2019, in New Prague, Minn. (Jerry Holt/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Dairy farmers are quitting en masse, but milk production keeps growing, in another sign of the terrific forces at work against small dairies in the Upper Midwest.

A report this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that October milk production in the state grew by 15 million pounds, or nearly 2%, compared to the year before, even though the state lost 10% of its dairy farms last year.

Cows have been growing more productive since World War II, and the survivors in the dairy business today are generally more efficient than the ones who leave.

"Every new generation of cows is better than the ones we had the previous year. Why? Because of better genetics, because of better management," said Marin Bozic, a dairy economist at the University of Minnesota. "The second factor is that as you have people exit the industry, typically those who exit are those who haven't invested in their dairy recently, so those that remain will tend to have higher milk per cow than those that leave."

Minnesota lost one in ten of its dairy farms in 2018 and the roughly 2,500 that remain are in turmoil. More than 90% said in a recent Minnesota Milk survey that their industry is in crisis, and more than 40% said they either can't get a loan from a bank or the terms are unreasonable.

The booming growth of dairy in western Minnesota, where Riverview Dairy is building farms that house as many as 9,000 cows, is feeding expansion of milk processing capacity on that side of the state. Quebec-based Agropur has invested $250 million to triple the production capacity of its cheese plant just across the border in Lake Norden, S.D., to about 9 million pounds per day. First District Association broke ground this fall on an expansion in Litchfield that will add 80,000 square feet to its processing plant there. Associated Milk Producers Inc. is expanding a plant in Paynesville, Minn., 35 miles west of St. Cloud.

"The I-29 corridor of Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota has definitely seen the most cow growth, so it would make sense for future plants to follow cows wherever they may be," said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of Minnesota Milk, the state dairy trade group. "There are still plenty of cows in southeastern Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin."

But southeast Minnesota just lost a processing plant. AMPI announced in early November that it is closing its Rochester cheese plant, which employs 75 people. The cooperative also closed its nonfat dry milk plant in the northeast Iowa town of Arlington. Milk that had been processed at those two locations will be routed to an AMPI cheese plant in Blair, Wis.

The cooperative cited a decline in dairy farm numbers and milk production in the region as the reason for the closures.

Sjostrom insists small farms can be efficient and succeed. Prices are up by more than $4 per hundredweight in the past year for class III milk that's used to make cheese. December futures for that milk are $18.72 per hundredweight. A Kemps ice cream plant in Rochester continues to accept milk. AMPI is expanding a plant in Sanborn, Iowa, 30 miles south of Worthington.

"Our farmers haven't lost any choices," Sjostrom said. "I think we're in a decent phase of expansion in the Minnesota area that hasn't happened in a while."

But the long-term trend of greater efficiency in dairy is inescapable, Sjostrom said.

"That's been happening. We've significantly reduced the number of cows in Minnesota," he said. "We are using somewhere around two-thirds less water and land than we were during World War II to make the same amount of milk."

Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at


Get Breaking News delivered directly to you.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

ORLANDO, Fla. - You're not supposed to see them like this, their polyester prince costumes unbuttoned and backpacks hanging from the shoulders of their colonial period dresses. Flip flops on, lunch boxes in hand, legions of workers stream into an employee parking lot at Walt Disney World, weary from another shift of making magic at the world's busiest theme park. This is the place where the ...

ORLANDO, Fla. - Eric Henderson was standing inside the theme park Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, near the exit of the new ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, when the 38-year-old Atlanta native spotted someone he thought looked familiar. "Are you an Imagineer?" Henderson asked John Larena, nodding to his official-looking Disney name tag and business-casual attire. Larena ...

Gym class can be the most traumatizing experience for those who don't like participatory sports. Inevitably, if you're not a particularly gifted athlete, you will be taunted or, even worse, chosen last for the junior high dodgeball team, a truly nasty game. If this has happened to you, then you can sympathize with Fiat. The Italian automaker has struggled in its return to the United States. ...

DALLAS - American Airlines had a rough summer clashing with union mechanics and coping with the grounding of the 737 Max, both of which led to hundreds of cancellations and thousands of delays. But it turns out a major problem, at least at DFW International Airport, was getting food and beverages out of the kitchen and onto planes. Some 2,300 American Airlines flights were delayed between ...

  • Updated

A week ago while winding down from Thanksgiving weekend, I turned to my husband shortly after seeing what's now turned into a firestorm of a TV commercial and quietly said: "Don't get me a Peloton." His quick response: "Here is the good news: It never crossed my mind." The exchange between us seemed so funny that I immediately tweeted it out on Dec. 1 and have since gotten 19 likes. Who knew ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.