U.S. milk production marched into the spring flush with the highest number of cows passing through milking parlors and robots in more than three decades. The USDA’s latest Milk Production report was released on April 21, providing preliminary March estimates and revised February totals.

Natzke dave
Editor / Progressive Dairy

March 2020-21 recap at a glance

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

  • U.S. milk production: 19.75 billion pounds, up 1.8%
  • U.S. cow numbers: 9.468 million, up 77,000 head
  • U.S. average milk per cow: 2,086 pounds, up 20 pounds
  • 24-state milk production: 18.84 billion pounds, up 2%
  • 24-state cow numbers: 8.954 million, up 93,000 head
  • 24-state average milk per cow: 2,104 pounds, up 19 pounds

Source: USDA Milk Production report, April 21, 2021

The latest report also revised February’s milk production total higher, adding another 36 million pounds (0.2%) to last month's preliminary estimate. Accounting for leap day in 2020, that means February 2021 year-over-year production growth was 2.5%.

And since it’s the end of the first quarter of the year, the USDA estimated January-March 2021 production at 56.7 billion pounds, up 1% from January-March 2020, even though there was one less day this year due to leap day in 2020. The average number of milk cows in the U.S. during the quarter was 9.46 million head, 29,000 head more than the average for October-December 2020 and 80,000 head more than the average for January-March last year.


Cow numbers continue to build

Dairy cow numbers continue to build on what is the largest U.S. dairy herd since 1995. Since bottoming out in June 2020, the nine-month growth spurt has added 120,000 cows in the 24 major dairy states and about 113,000 cows to the U.S. herd.

At 9.468 million, March 2021 U.S. cow numbers were up by 8,000 head from revised February numbers, which were also raised another 2,000 from last month’s preliminary report. In the 24 major dairy states, March 2021 cow numbers were up about 7,000 head from a month earlier. February 2021 cow numbers were also revised 11,000 higher.

Compared to a year earlier (Table 1), March cow numbers were reported higher in 13 states and lower in 10 states, with New York again unchanged.

042221 natzke cow numbers tb1

Texas led all states in growth in cow numbers, up 27,000 head from the year before and 2,000 more than February. South Dakota also exhibited substantial growth, up 18,000 head year-over-year and up 4,000 since February. The combined year-over-year growth in Texas, South Dakota, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan and Colorado totaled 102,000 head. Pennsylvania, Florida and Vermont showed the biggest drop from a year earlier, down a combined 23,000 head.

Week dairy cull cow slaughter in 2021 continues to run on pace with rates a year earlier. Through April 3, slaughter under federal inspection was estimated at 917,100 head, just 500 head more than the corresponding period a year earlier.

Milk per cow growth slow

March 2021 growth in U.S. and major dairy state average milk output per cow slowed to about two-thirds of a pound per day compared to a year ago (Table 2). Minnesota and Wisconsin boosted daily output by more than 2 pounds per day to lead all states. New Mexico, Arizona and Texas were among nine states that saw lower milk output per cow compared to a year earlier.

042221 natzke cow numbers tb2

Milk volume, percentages

With higher output per cow, Wisconsin and Minnesota led all states in year-over-year milk production growth on a volume basis in March. Combined with growth in California and Texas, the four states increased output about 268 million pounds. Production in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Vermont was down a combined 54 million pounds.

On a percentage basis, March 2021 output in South Dakota was up more than 13% from a year earlier, with Indiana up 10%. Florida (-7%) again led decliners.