Average net returns of large dairy operations exceeded those of farms with smaller herds between 2005 and 2018

This line chart shows the net returns by dairy head size, from 2005 to 2018.

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 every year between 2005 and 2018, average net returns increased with herd size and returns for herds of 1,000 head or more (the largest class for which the Economic Research Service (ERS) publishes annual estimates) exceeded those for all other herd sizes. While net returns fluctuate from year to year, farms with 1,000 head or more generated positive net returns of $1.12 per hundredweight on average between 2005 and 2018. These farms had positive net returns in 10 out of 14 years. By contrast, the smallest herd sizes (50-99 head and 100-199 head) never covered total costs, so their net returns were negative in every year. While some farms in each size class realize positive net returns, these class averages indicate that most small and midsize farms face persistent financial pressures. The persistent differences in net returns have led to structural changes in the dairy industry, with cows and production shifting away from smaller farms and toward larger ones. This chart appears in the ERS report, Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming, released July 2020. It also appears in the Amber Waves feature, “Scale Economies Provide Advantages to Large Dairy Farms.”

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