Sustainability of the U.S. dairy industry

The U.S. dairy industry has realized tremendous improvements in efficiency and milk production in the last 50 years. The American Dairy Science Association has invited a group of ten researchers from different universities to analyze the evolution and the sustainability of the US dairy industry. This work has recently been published in the Journal of Dairy Science1.

The authors first defined sustainability as a framework for the paper discussion, including environment, economy, and social values as the three pillars of sustainability. Then, they analyzed the evolution of the U.S. dairy industry from 1940 to today. Advances in genetics, nutrition, and herd management have resulted in more than a four-fold increase in milk yield and an associated reduction in numbers of both farms and cows.

In 1940, there were approximately 21 million cows on almost 4.7 million dairy farms in the United States, but by 1980, farm and cow numbers decreased 93% and 48%, respectively, to 334,180 farms with just under 11 million cows.

Farm numbers decreased to approximately 53,000 licensed dairies in 2012 and cow numbers have decreased a further 16 percent. Milk yield averaged 5,194 lb./cow in 1950 compared with 21,340 lb./cow in 2011.

As a result of this evolution, today"s dairy industry produces 59% more milk with 64% fewer cows, consuming  77 percent less feed and 65 percent less water per CWT of milk produced compared with dairy production in 1944.

Some of the main conclusions and final thoughts were the following: the paper identified and presented several major factors affecting the future sustainability of the US dairy industry, including climate change, rapid scientific and technological innovation and advances, globalization, failure to integrate societal values, and lack of multidisciplinary research initiatives.

They also argued that sustainability is more than economic profitability; it relates to environmental and societal concerns, including the quality of life of workers and the animals on dairy farms. Public input regarding the acceptability of practices, including new technologies, is required. Sustained engagement between and among producers, various sectors of the industry (e.g., processors and producers), consumers, and citizens will be essential to recognize and implement more sustainable practices. Authors recognize that this will require a major paradigm shift on the part of the U.S. dairy industry to collaboratively develop a path to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.

The paper analyzes the actual funding sources for dairy research and strongly encourages more public funding sources (including by the USDA), and the dairy industry at large, to begin funding the research (including that which falls into the domain of social science) that will be required to support improved sustainable practices in the years to come.

In respect to the consumers" attitude, the article concludes that the dairy industry must be prepared to make changes to accommodate public expectations. This approach will benefit the longer-term sustainability of the industry by helping to ensure that consumers (and citizens) have confidence in dairy production methods and that the practices of dairy farmers fit well within the values of our broader society.

(1) For more details please go to: von Keyserlingk et al., 2013, Sustainability of the dairy industry. Journal of Dairy Science. 96:1-21



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