Dairy farms are converging into “cow islands”

The nation’s dairy cows are moving closer together. Cows and milk production have shifted north and west, farther from cities, to converge in what economist Mark Stephenson calls “cow islands.”

“Cow islands are areas where we’ve seen dairy retreating to, or concentrating,” says Stephenson, Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability, who is preparing a report on the shifting demographics of the dairy business.

Cow_islands_1-454x283Part of that concentration results from cows moving away from an entire region of the country, Stephenson says.   “We’ve had a major exodus throughout the southeastern quadrant of the United States. The southeast has just had a big loss of cattle and dairy farms.”

That is because producers are establishing or expanding dairies in areas that are more suited to intensive milk production. The southeast is hot and humid, Stephenson points out, and high-producing cows don’t do well in that environment. Instead, cows are moving to where climate is more temperate, where producers can get better payback from advances in cow genetics and dairy management practices.

“Several regions of the country, California and Idaho for example, have had pretty spectacular growth, but so too has Wisconsin and western New York,” Stephenson says.

Owners of large dairy processing facilities are also driving the change. “Growth has often happened where a few very large dairy plants want to build. If you have a company that says, ‘I need more cheese,’ they might be looking at a location and ask themselves, ‘Where can I put a plant where I can get the kind of growth and milk production that I need?’” says Stephenson.

Overall, that has meant a gradual, nation-wide shift in where the majority of cows are.  Each decade since 1960, the cow population has shifted west and a bit north, on average.
Even more noticeably, cows have been moving away from cities.  That is especially apparent in California—cow numbers have dropped dramatically in the greater Los Angeles basin—but it is also discernible around El Paso, Seattle, New Orleans, Baltimore and other cities.

The growth has been in sparsely populated areas, where processing plants are “co-locating” with farms, Stephenson says. “Quite often the areas where we see big growth are not real large. There is intensive growth in a fairly small area, where maybe 30 or 40 farms have gone in where a plant has been established. That’s quite often where people aren’t.”

Surprisingly, America’s Dairyland bucks this trend. Cow numbers are up significantly in Wisconsin, as they are in other Great Lakes dairy regions. But while western New York, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio are adding cows away from urban centers, Wisconsin is boosting production in the state’s more populated eastern half.

Stephenson thinks this comes down to attitudes about agriculture.  “The state celebrates its dairy industry,” he says, “There’s a greater tolerance for animal agriculture here.”