Large dairy operations realized gross returns that exceeded total costs

This bar chart shows the total costs and gross returns by dairy herd size for 2016.

Large dairy operations have significant financial advantages over small and midsized farms, primarily because of lower average production costs per pound of milk produced. Therefore, larger farms can earn profits during times when smaller farms bear losses. In 2016, average total costs of milk production fell from $33.54 per hundredweight among farms with 10-49 cows to $20.85 among farms with 200-499 cows. The latter costs were 21 percent higher than the average costs realized at the largest farms—those with at least 2,500 head. Larger herds realized lower gross returns because many are in regions with lower milk prices. Gross returns include milk sales, plus revenues from the sale of culled dairy animals, milk cooperative dividends, and the fertilizer value of manure. Despite their lower gross returns, lower costs led to much larger net returns among larger operations than among smaller farms. In 2016, farms with more than 1,000 head realized positive net returns on average, whereas farms with fewer head realized negative net returns on average. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming, released July 2020.

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