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Dairy’s Future: Who Will the Top Dairy States be in the Next Decade?

Karen Bohnert

August 31, 2021

Dramatic changes have unfolded in the dairy industry. The U.S. is now producing 60% more milk from 30% fewer cows compared to five generations ago. With more milk production occurring on fewer farms and large-scale operations expanding into non-traditional markets, the question remains: Who will be the top dairy states in the next decade?

First, it’s worthwhile to look at some of the drivers changing the future of U.S. dairy. Climate change and limits in water availability could potentially shift areas of dairy production in the U.S. According to a 2018 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science, milk production could shift from the hot dry areas of the west and southwest to the Midwest, Great Lakes and Canada.

Out west the ongoing drought, coupled with strict water regulations, is forcing dairy farmers to efficiently grow crops to feed their cows. “Sometimes that requires robbing one across to grow another,” Ryan Junio, owner of Four J Jerseys in Pixley, Calif. notes. “I’m very concerned about my dairy’s future if our management in the state doesn’t change ways and if Mother Nature doesn’t treat us right.” Then Versus Now When looking at where milk will be produced in the future, first, let’s look at where milk was produced 10 years ago. USDA’s Milk Production report for June 2011 includes 23 selected states and the following were the top 10: California – 3.5 billion lbs. Wisconsin – 2.2 billion lbs. Idaho – 1.1 billion lbs. New York – 1.1 billion lbs. Pennsylvania – 880 million lbs. Texas – 803 million lbs. Minnesota – 749 million lbs. Michigan – 719 million lbs. New Mexico – 689 million lbs. Washington – 524 million lbs.

The June 2021 USDA’s Milk Production report included 24 selected states. Georgia and South Dakota entered the group, and Missouri dropped out. The top 10 states remained unchanged, although a little reshuffling occurred. And there are now six states in the billion-pounds-per-month club: California – 3.5 billion lbs. Wisconsin – 2.6 billion lbs. Idaho – 1.4 billion lbs. New York – 1.3 billion lbs. Texas – 1.3 billion lbs. Michigan – 1.0 billion lbs. Minnesota – 873 million lbs. Pennsylvania – 846 million lbs. New Mexico – 675 million lbs. Washington – 549 million lbs.

What About South Dakota? Erick Metzger, general manager for National All-Jersey, based in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, points out a few other notes of interest. “The next four more states each produced over 400 million pounds, but they would need to more than double their production to enter the top six,” he notes. “And from 2011 to 2021 none of the four grew by more than 200 million pounds. While South Dakota’s growth has been impressive at 296 million pounds, it still doesn’t rank in the top 15.”

Despite not ranking in the top 15, Jason Mischel with Valley Queen Cheese Factory in Millbank, S.D., says that his state has grown 35% in milk production in the last three years and is finally getting noticed on a national stage.

Travel to Baltic, S.D., and dairy producer Lynn Boadwine remarks that the dairy growth in his state has been remarkable. Although he easily recalls the late 1990’s as cow numbers were quickly dwindling. Boadwine, who milks 2,400 cows near Sioux Falls was concerned that they were in jeopardy of losing their existing processors and would end up having nowhere to sell their milk. “Our state stepped up and did a good job in recruiting both producers and processors,” he says. “It takes smart growth—don’t outproduce your processing capacity.”

Since then, South Dakota has worked hard to increase both cow numbers and new dairies, as well as processors. They have gained Bel Brands to Brookings and Agropur to Lake Norden, as well as see growth in existing manufacturers, including Valley Queen.

Despite South Dakota’s growth, Metzger says that where we will produce milk in the future is pretty much where it is being produced now. “More reshuffling among the top eight states may occur,” he says. “Availability of water will become increasingly important, so will proximity to population centers if transportation becomes increasingly expensive.”

While those above factors bode well for states east of the Mississippi River, also worth noting is ample processing capacity impact. “It becomes a key factor because there’s no need to produce milk if there aren’t facilities to have it processed,” Metzger adds.

South Dakota stands firm that their state is an ideal spot for dairy and the development along the I-29 corridor illustrates that point. Boadwine says an added plus is their state’s ability to grow forages needed to feed a dairy cow—making is a very efficient place to milk cows. Although Boadwine admits while pretty much every South Dakota farmer has a combine, they don’t have to sell you corn silage. “As important as it is to make sure you have a processor secured before producing more milk or moving into a new state, it is also advisable to secure your forage needs, too,” he notes.

Boadwine also points out that the regulations his state faces are less onerous compared to others and being less sparsely populated, South Dakota is better suited for animal agriculture.

Yes, the industry has changed at lightning speed over the last decade and while significantly more milk is being produced compared to ten years ago, the likeliness to where those cows are being milked will unlikely change moving forward. “We must grow consumption as we grow production,” Boadwine adds.



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