A year ago, dairy farmers were adjusting to COVID-19-related production restrictions and low milk prices by cutting cow numbers and milk production. That’s been reversed and then some. The USDA’s May Milk Production latest report was released on June 21, and the numbers are growing across the board.
Natzke dave
Editor / Progressive Dairy

May 2020-21 recap at a glance

Reviewing the USDA preliminary estimates for May 2021 compared to May 2020:

  • U.S. milk production: 19.85 billion pounds, up 4.6%
  • U.S. cow numbers: 9.505 million, up 145,000 head
  • U.S. average milk per cow: 2,088 pounds, up 61 pounds
  • 24-state milk production: 18.941 billion pounds, up 4.9%
  • 24-state cow numbers: 8.99 million, up 152,000 head
  • 24-state average milk per cow: 2,107 pounds, up 63 pounds

Source: USDA Milk Production report, June 21, 2021

The latest report also revised the April 2021 milk production estimate higher, adding another 44 million pounds (0.2%) to last month's preliminary estimate. That means April year-over-year production growth was 3.5%.

Cow numbers: Adding South Dakota

To put the growth of the U.S. dairy herd in perspective, the number of cows added in the past 12 months in the 24 major dairy states (152,000 head) is almost equal to all the dairy cows in South Dakota (153,000 head) in May.


Since bottoming out in June 2020, the 10-month growth spurt has added 156,000 cows in the 24 major dairy states and about 150,000 cows to the U.S. herd. Cow numbers have now reached the highest number since the fourth quarter of 1994.

At 9.505 million, May 2021 U.S. cow numbers were up by 5,000 head from revised April numbers, which were also raised another 10,000 from last month’s preliminary report. In the 24 major dairy states, May 2021 cow numbers were up about 5,000 head from a month earlier; April 2021 cow numbers in those states were also revised 9,000 higher.

062121 natzke cow numbers tbl1

Compared to a year earlier (Table 1), May 2021 cow numbers were reported higher in 15 states and lower in eight states, with Georgia unchanged.

Texas led all states in growth in cow numbers, up 32,000 head from the year before and 2,000 more than April. Indiana was second for growth, up 20,000 on the year and 1,000 compared to April. Seven other states (Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Idaho and Colorado) increased cow numbers by 10,000-19,000 from a year earlier.

Pennsylvania and Vermont showed the biggest drop from a year earlier, down a combined 12,000 head. California cow numbers were down 1,000 head.

Despite the fact there are more cows in the U.S. dairy herd, the culling rate continues to slow. Through June 5, 2021, weekly dairy cull cow slaughter at federally inspected plants trailed the numbers for the corresponding week a year earlier in 10 of 12 weeks, dating back to mid-March. Since March 13, cow slaughter is down about 34,000 head compared to a similar period a year ago. Year-to-date through June 5, cow slaughter was estimated at 1.419 million head, about 22,000 less than a year ago.

Milk per cow growth jumps

Along with much higher cow numbers, May 2021 growth in U.S. and major dairy state average milk output per cow increased about 2 pounds per day compared to a year ago (Table 2). Producers in four states, New Mexico, California, Texas and Vermont, saw daily output per cow jump about 3 pounds. Monthly production per cow was down in just one state, Washington.

Michigan maintained its spot atop the list, averaging 2,335 pounds of milk per cow during May.

062121 natzke percow tbl2

Milk volume, percentage growth strong

California and Wisconsin led all states in year-over-year milk production growth on a volume basis in May, with Texas not far behind. The three states increased output by about 455 million pounds. Production in Arizona, Virginia and Washington was down a combined 10 million pounds.

On a percentage basis, May 2021 output in South Dakota was up nearly 15% from a year earlier, with Indiana up about 13% and Texas up almost 11%. Virginia (-2%) led decliners.  end mark

Dave Natzke