Minnesota says goodbye to 146 dairy farms

2023 saw continuation of trends, challenges

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With milk prices dropping last spring, followed by drought conditions arriving in many areas, 2023 gave Minnesota dairy farmers steep challenges. Added to that were higher costs of production and inflation in general, affecting already tight profit margins. 

In part due to these challenges, the year also saw the continued decline in the number of dairy farms. Data collected by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture shows how those numbers shifted each month per county during 2023 and verifies that the trend contributed to the steady loss of dairies across the state.

Nicole Neeser, DVM, MPH, director of MDA’s Department of Dairy and Meat Inspection, said dairy farmers faced several tough surprises in 2023.

“The low prices in the spring, along with a very large volume of milk on the market, was a bit of a surprise as things seemed to be a bit more settled than they ended up being,” Neeser said. “Many producers found themselves in a difficult marketing situation, with either a loss of a buyer for their milk, being asked to dump milk or very low prices. Things recovered a bit later in the year.”

A spreadsheet provided by MDA shows the month-to-month tally of dairy herds per county in 2023. The numbers for December are not yet conclusive as they were recorded Dec. 1, 2023, but the data to date shows a year-over-year loss of 146 dairy farms in Minnesota.

“The November losses are deceptive and represent an annual trend of large losses in November and December due to goat herds going off the market due to seasonal dry-offs,” Neeser said. “We did have a loss of 25 Grade A farms in November. This is a more accurate number of farms that truly quit dairying.”

Although Stearns, Todd and Morrison remained the top counties for the number of dairy farms last year, ending with 356, 140 and 124 dairy farms, respectively, by December, Stearns County had lost 27 dairy herds, and Morrison County had lost 21. Todd County’s total increased by one. The tallies specifically count the number of existing dairy herds in each county, not the total number of milk cows. For instance, Winona County is in fourth place with 99 dairy herds, but it has more total milk cows than Todd County. This is because Winona County cows are dispersed across fewer, larger farms.

There are bright spots within MDA’s data. 

Becker County gained two dairy herds last year, and six other counties gained one each. Many counties maintained the same number. However, 43 of the 80 counties that had at least one dairy herd at the beginning of the year lost at least one dairy farm. 

When a county already has few dairy farms, losing one or two can create a big dent. For example, although Mille Lacs County began 2023 with 14 dairy operations, it lost three during the year, which is 21% in one year.

Goodhue County began the year with 76 dairy herds but closed the year with 67, a loss of nearly 12%. Beltrami County lost one of its two dairy herds last year and became a member of the group of counties with only one dairy operation.

2023 was not unique in its decline of dairy herds as the trend has existed in Minnesota for decades. This is attributed to factors like urban spread and rising land prices, which inhibit the purchase of farmland. Also, increasing sizes of farms and herds in recent decades has led to many smaller dairies closing shop.

“Trends for 2024 will be similar to past years with our continuing to see dairy herds going out of business,” Neeser said. “However, processing and manufacturing has generally been strong in the state, and we expect to see this continue.”

Data recorded by MDA is used to formulate ways to provide support to dairy farms and supply resources.

“MDA is always watching and monitoring trends, and the reduction in farm numbers continues to be of concern,” Neeser said. 

MDA does not track the reasons dairy farms leave the marketplace.

“We know that there are many, many different reasons as things like workforce, changing markets, input costs, age of owners/retirement, prices and other factors influence those decisions,” Neeser said. “We work to support farms of all sizes, especially with resources related to mental health, expanding markets, transition planning, profitability and other areas through the direct work of MDA and partnerships with other organizations.”

The farming challenges of 2023 did not lead to a peak year in dairy farm closures.

The decline in Minnesota dairy farm numbers in 2023 was less than in 2022 when the state saw a loss of 175 dairy operations. Even greater were the losses in 2018 when 262 dairy farms closed and in 2019 when 268 closed. One-hundred fourteen dairies were lost in 2020 and 115 in 2021.

The last remaining dairy in Koochiching County closed this year; however, other dairy farms that were the last ones in their counties in 2023 are still milking cows into 2024. Even though MDA data from the first months of 2023 indicated that Aitkin County had lost its one remaining dairy herd, later data revealed that, by April, the herd was back to producing milk.

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