Milk output across the top-20 dairy states totaled 12.3 billion pounds during December 2003 — down just 0.3 percent versus a year ago, according to the USDA’s “Milk Production” report, released Jan. 16.

The report also showed a slight revision in November milk production. Milk production fell just 0.1 percent during November — instead of the preliminary 0.2-percent decline reported during December.

During the fourth quarter of 2003, milk production across all 50 states totaled 41.3 billion pounds — down 0.6 percent from the same time period a year ago. Cow numbers in all 50 states fell 141,000 head during that time compared to the October through December quarter of 2002.

More than half of the top-20 dairy states experienced lower milk production in December. Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky faired the worst — down 9.1 percent, 6.9 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively. Pennsylvania also saw the largest reduction in cow numbers among the top-20 states during December. Cow numbers in the Keystone State fell 30,000 head versus a year ago.

However, of the seven states that saw gains in milk output, three top achievers stood out: Texas, New Mexico and Idaho — posting gains of 9.4 percent, 6.5 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively.

The table at right shows milk output by state for the top-20 states during December.

Milk per cow continued to grow modestly during December. Milk production per cow in the 20-major dairy states showed a 14-pound gain during December compared to a year ago. Milk production per cow averaged 1,589 pounds for the month — about 53 pounds per cow per day. Milk production per cow in the top-20 states increased every month in 2003, except May and August.

Meanwhile, cow numbers across the top-20 states continued to shrink during December. Milk-cow numbers totaled 7.71 million head during December — 93,000 head less than a year ago, but unchanged on a month-to-month basis. Cow numbers have declined on a year-over-year basis every month since June 2003.

This decline in cow numbers — plus stronger cheese and butter prices — suggest milk prices during the first quarter of 2004 will be much higher than the same time period a year ago. As of Jan. 16, block and barrel cheese prices were at $1.305 and $1.255 per pound. Butter prices have posted stellar performance, and as of Jan. 16, they were sitting at $1.40 per pound.

These prices suggest milk prices for the first quarter of 2004 will average between $11.50 and $11.70 per hundredweight for Class III and between $10.70 and $11 for Class IV, says Bob Cropp, professor emeritus and dairy economist at the University of Wisconsin. In comparison, both Class III and IV prices were below $10 during the first quarter of 2003.