It's a bull market for dairy cows. The industry is producing record amounts of milk (223 billion pounds last year), but the most staggering fact is that the dairy industry is doing so with half as many cows (9.38 million in 2020) as it relied on in the 1950s.
The secret lies in science. Thanks in part to the sequencing of the bovine genome, as well as advances in artificial insemination, the amount of milk produced per cow has skyrocketed, roughly quadrupling since the 1920s. Other factors include better nutrition and management, and vaccines that help keep cows healthy.
To the relief of many animal rights advocates, the use of growth hormones is less of a factor than it was 20 years ago. "No question that is efficacious," said Mark Stephenson, the director for dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability. "A cow will produce more milk if provided that product, but increasingly consumers have been pushing away from that."
Tom Kestell, of Ever-Green-View Farm in Waldo, Wisconsin, said despite all of the advancements, the goal is the same: Produce good-quality milk at a good price without sacrificing the well-being of the cow.
Milking the facts:
- During milk production, a dairy cow eats 100 pounds (45 kg) of feed every day, which is mostly made up of grains and grasses that people can't eat.
- On average, a dairy cow produces 128 glasses of milk per day, or between 7 and 9 gallons (26.5 - 34 liters).
- Farmers could only milk about six cows per hour before milking machines were invented in 1894.