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U.S. dairy herd largest since 1995; December milk output up 3.1%

Progressive Dairy Editor Dave Natzke Published on 26 January 2021

Milk production growth continued its torrid pace in December 2020, up 3.1% from December 2019 and pushing total annual output up more than 2% compared to a year earlier. The preliminary report, released Jan. 25, indicated milk production growth rate in the 24 major dairy states was slightly higher, up 3.2% in December and 2.2% for the year.

The most staggering numbers in the report relate to both the growth and size of the U.S. dairy herd. At 9.443 million, December 2020 cow numbers were up by 100,000 head from a year earlier. In the 24 major dairy states, cow numbers were estimated at 8.923 million head, up by 107,000 head. Based on USDA historical data, the last time there were this many cows in the U.S. dairy herd was during the second half of 1995.



December 2019-20 recap at a glance

Reviewing the USDA preliminary estimates for December 2020 compared to December 2019:

  • U.S. milk production: 18.94 billion pounds, up 3.1%
  • U.S. cow numbers: 9.443 million, up 100,000 head
  • U.S. average milk per cow per month: 2,006 pounds, up 40 pounds
  • 24-state milk production: 18.09 billion pounds, up 3.2%
  • 24-state cow numbers: 8.923 million, up 107,000 head
  • 24-state average milk per cow per month: 2,027 pounds, up 40 pounds

Source: USDA Milk Production report, Jan. 25, 2021

November cow numbers raised

Not only were December cow numbers up by 12,000 head from November in the 24 major dairy states, but the USDA added another 12,000 head to November’s previous preliminary estimate, putting the total increase at 37,000 head between October-December. Since bottoming out in June, cow numbers in the 24 major dairy states increased by 96,000 head in the last six months of the year.

Nationally, USDA’s December preliminary estimate retroactively raised cow numbers all the way back to July, boosting November’s total by 24,000 head. That puts the total increase in U.S. cow numbers at 38,000 head between October and December. Since bottoming out in June, cow numbers increased by 93,000 head in the last six months of 2020.

For history buffs, U.S. cow numbers averaged more than 9.5 million head for all of 1994-95, falling below 9.4 million head in the early months of 1996. Since then, U.S. cow numbers hit 9.4 million head again only one year, for about six months in 2017.


Compared to a year earlier (Table 1), December cow numbers were reported higher in 13 states and lower in 8 states, with Georgia, New York and Virginia unchanged. Cow numbers were up a combined 97,000 head in Texas, Indiana, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan and Idaho, far offsetting the 28,000-head drop in all declining states. California, Florida and Pennsylvania showed the biggest drop, down 5,000 head from the year before.

cow numbers

A slower rate in cow culling accounted for some of the growth in the milking herd in 2020. The USDA reported total cull dairy cow slaughter under federal inspection was 3.063 million head in 2020, about 161,000 head fewer than the year before.

Milk per cow grows

December 2020 growth in U.S. and major dairy state average milk output per cow rose about 1.3 pounds per day per compared to a year ago (Table 2). California boosted daily output by about 2.25 pounds per day to lead all states. Only Arizona, Georgia and Idaho reported lower year-over-year output per cow.

milk per cow

Michigan remained the nation’s leader in milk per cow, averaging 2,270 pounds in December 2020.


Volume, percentage growth

California led the 18 states with year-over-year milk volume growth in December, up 110 million pounds (3.2%), while Texas and Wisconsin were up 91 million pounds and 65 million pounds, respectively.

On a percentage basis, growth in South Dakota continued at a double-digit pace in December, up nearly 12% compared with a year earlier. Indiana output was up about 10%. Florida (-5%) and Vermont (-3%) led decliners.  end mark

Dave Natzke
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