There were less than half as many dairy farms operating in the United States in 2019 compared to 2002 according to the USDA. In 17 years, the number of licensed herds went from 74,100 to 34,187.
In Ohio, there are about 1,750 dairy farms compared to 2,647 in January 2017. The number of farms continues to decrease, but the economic impact of dairy products sold and produced accounts for $23.8 billion.
Being a dairy farmer is a demanding job with a lot of challenges, said Rebecca Oravets, a former dairy farmer in Rootstown Township.
Oravets and her husband operate Old Forge Dairy. Previously, they milked their own cows but now their company solely produces cheese.
A big issue that comes with dairy farming is low-profit margins from milk sales.
100 weight of milk is sold for anywhere in-between two to six dollars, Oravets said. This much milk is approximately 11.5 gallons.
“The price of milk can be the same or lower than it costs you to care for your animals,” Oravets said.
Also, the greater number of cows a farm has, the more expenses there are, she said. More cows require more feed and costly equipment for upkeep.
“So you’re really like you’re just barely surviving as far as a commercial dairy farmer goes,” Oravets said.
The job also requires a lot of dedication, she said. Cows need to be milked twice a day no matter what day it is. For example, she gave birth to two children and her husband had to leave the hospital to milk the cows.
“That means there’s no sick days, doesn’t matter how you feel,” Oravets said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas morning, if it’s your birthday, it doesn’t matter.”
The difficulty and stress of the job can lead some farmers to suicide, she said.
Farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession, along with those employed in fishing and forestry according to the CDC. 84.5 per 100,000 people in these professions commit suicide.
“It’s a tough lifestyle and I think that it’s not that people don’t love it,” Oravets said. “But you can burn out really easily and if you’re not rewarded financially for your efforts.”
Old Forge Dairy made the switch to exclusively producing cheese because the demand for cheese is rising but their cows could not produce enough milk, she said. They sold their cows and started working with a slightly larger family farm to produce the milk for their cheese.
“[We’re] trying to pay them a better price, that will be a more livable wage for them and make it more worth their while to do what they’re doing,” Oravets said. “And it allows us, you know, more time to focus on cheesemaking, and we can feel just as good that we’re still supporting a small farm.”
Dairy vs. Non-dairy alternatives
One factor in the decreasing number of dairy farms may be the increase in non-dairy alternatives like soy milk, almond milk and coconut milk.
Tanya Falcone, coordinator for the Center of Nutrition Outreach at Kent State, said some people are opting out of dairy use for many reasons including environmental, health and ethical reasons.
No matter what, Falcone stressed the importance of making an educated decision when choosing what to consume.
“There’s so many choices, … but it’s a matter of why you’re picking what you’re picking,” Falcone said.
Determining which option is healthier, Falcone said it depends on a lot of factors. Dietary needs vary from person to person and there isn’t one right answer.
Both dairy and non-dairy alternatives can provide good sources of vitamins, fat and protein, but it is all dependent on what else is a part of someone’s diet, she said.
While Falcone said she doesn’t necessarily advocate for buying everything all organic, she believes organic milk does make a difference. She recommends shopping at local farms where the quality of milk may be higher and healthier.
If a cow isn’t healthy, then it won’t produce good milk so how the cows are cared for is a large determiner in the quality of the milk.
“If you have cows that are grass-fed that have space to roam, then their overall body is healthier which means that the milk we’re going to be ingesting is healthier,” Falcone said.
Oravets agreed taking care of her cows properly was key to successful milk production.
“Feeding your cows is of utmost importance,” Oravets said. “You know, if you don’t have good quality feed going into your cows, you’re not going to get milk out.”
Dairy farming during COVID-19
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is the latest factor causing the work of dairy farmers to be increasingly difficult.
Scott Higgins, the president and CEO of the American Dairy Association Mideast, said the dairy industry had to make big changes to survive during the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, 40 percent of the marketplace for dairy products shut down, Higgins said. Yet, fast food remaining open through the drive through helped the dairy industry to stay afloat.
Dairy processors pivoted more milk products to grocery stores at this time, he said. This helped prevent scarcity and store limits on dairy goods in order for more profit to go back to dairy farms.
Ohio was fortunate enough to still have a significant demand for dairy but the amount of milk was still higher than the demand, he said.
“But at the end of the day, the milk prices have plummeted,” Higgins said. “So that milk price to the farmer drops significantly and so we have farms that have struggled to make ends meet.”
Dairy promotion programs such as the American Dairy Association Mideast are trying to find new markets for dairy to increase the price of milk, he said.
“So things are better than it was because of our ability to pivot and not just accept defeat,” Higgins said.
He said the best way for the average person to support dairy farmers is by being a lover of dairy through purchase and consumption.
Oravets agrees and said shopping locally makes a difference.
“I guess just show support in that way, Oravets said. “Buy milk at the grocery store, even if the farmer is making less money on it. They’re still making [money] it’s still keeping them in business.”
History of Dairy – Data Provided by ProCon.Org
Madisyn Woodring provided the section on Rebecca Oravets and Scott Higgins as well as the timeline and the featured image.
Lauren Sasala provided the section on Tanya Falcone as well as the data throughout.