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Pennsylvania dairy farmer survey looks back at 2020

Zach Myers for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 April 2021

A year ago, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, leaders of Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE) created a survey to determine what effect COVID-19 had on Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers and to get a snapshot of the dairy industry.

The 27-question survey covered an array of topics, including herd and primary operator demographics, impacts of COVID-19, the use of outside advisers and importance of different management practices.



The survey was mailed to more than 5,000 current and former Pennsylvania dairy farms in late May 2020, and responses were received until July 31, 2020. A total of 711 responses were received, with 588 responses coming from dairies actively farming at the time of the survey. The remaining 123 responses indicated they had exited the dairy business at some point prior to the survey. Responses were received from 55 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

The average age of the primary operator of the dataset was 54 years. About 95% of those surveyed indicated the primary operator was male, with an average age of 51 years. There were 24 surveys (5%) that reported the primary operator was female. The average age of female operators was higher than that of the males, at 58 years. Of the 24 female primary operators, 19 were operating dairies with fewer than 100 cows.

Herd size covered a wide range with a low of four to a high of 3,000 cows. Herd size was separated into four categories: less than 50, 50 to 99, 100 to 199, and 200 and greater, to evaluate any differences that may exist between herd sizes. The average herd size of the dataset was 136 cows with 107 heifers. This gives a heifer-to-cow ratio of 0.79. The old rule of thumb was to have one replacement for each mature cow. That rule is now likely inaccurate. A ratio this close to 1-to-1 may indicate Pennsylvania dairy farmers are raising more heifers than needed.

Many farmers underestimate what it costs to raise a heifer to maturity. With the volatility in heifer market prices, selling an extra heifer as a springer may result in a net loss of revenue relative to the cost of raising her. It is now recommended to calculate how many heifers you need based on calf mortality, percent heifers born and cull rate, then only raise the number of heifers needed to maintain numbers. Based on USDA reports, average herd size in 2020 for Pennsylvania dairies was 89 cows.

Of herds included in the survey, the average cow produced 65.8 pounds of milk per day, equivalent to about 20,068 pounds per year based on a 305-day lactation. According to the USDA, the average Pennsylvania cow produced 21,320 pounds of milk in 2020. The average cow in the survey dataset produced about 1,252 pounds less than the state average as recorded by the USDA.


Production differences existed between herd sizes. Production tended to increase as herd size increased. At 16,254 pounds per cow per year, the less-than-50 herd size produced 5,506 pounds less milk per year than the highest-production herd size (200 and greater) with 21,760 pounds. The 50-to-99 herd size produced slightly more milk per cow at 18,218 pounds than the 100-to-199 category at 17,829. The scope of the survey did not address why there were production differences between herd sizes.

Few know cost of production

The most concerning information learned from this survey was the results of the questions related to cost of production (COP). Only 29% of responses reported calculating COP. As part of the survey, dairy farmers were also asked to report their COP. However, with so few farmers calculating COP, there were not enough responses to make any assumptions on what the average COP in Pennsylvania may be. Average COP of this dataset was $16.94 per hundredweight (cwt).

In a later question, farmers were asked to rank the importance of certain factors to the future success of their dairy business (Figure 1).

Importance of decreasing cost of production

One of the factors ranked was the importance of reducing COP. The results of this question do not follow the results when asked if COP was calculated. About 91% of surveys ranked the importance of reducing COP as somewhat or very important. Comparing the results from these two questions shows that perhaps farmers understand the importance of knowing COP, but for whatever reason they do not calculate it. To reduce COP, it must first be known.

COVID-19 impact

Another objective of the survey was to determine the effect of COVID-19 on dairy farmers in Pennsylvania during the early part of the pandemic. When asked if any milk was discarded in March, April or May, 60 dairies responded they did have to dump milk. According to the survey results, these dairies reportedly disposed of a total of 2 million pounds of production. Of the total milk dumped, 55% of it was discarded by the 200-and-greater herd size alone. The combined total milk dumped by the other three herd sizes was still about 100,000 pounds less than the 200-and-greater dairies.


However, looking at the percent of total milk dumped by herd size shows smaller dairies on average dumped a larger percentage of their milk production compared to the largest herd size. The 100-to-199 size dairies dumped the largest percentage at 19%, compared to the smallest percent (9.6%) for the 200-and- greater category. The less-than-50 herds had the next highest percentage of dumped milk at 15%, and the 50- to-99 herds dumped 10%.

At the time of the survey, only 22 of the 60 dairies indicated they had received any reimbursement for dumped milk. When asked if they had been instructed by their milk handler to reduce milk production to ease supply issues, 502 surveys answered, with 202 dairies indicating they were asked to reduce milk production. The most common reduction asked was 15%. If asked by their milk handler to reduce milk supply, all survey respondents reported that they had complied.

The survey also asked if farmers believed they would have to exit the dairy business because of COVID-19. The overwhelming majority reported they would not be forced to exit the dairy business. However, 22 surveys indicated they would likely exit the dairy business because of COVID-19, citing economics as the main reason.

The survey was conducted after the first round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) direct payments was announced. Survey respondents were asked to rank the importance of CFAP direct payments. Most surveys indicated CFAP payments were important, with 54% of the farmers responding that it was very important. An additional 24% reported it was somewhat important. There were differences among herd sizes, with importance of direct payments ranking higher as farm size increased. The less-than-50 category was over five times more likely to rank direct payments as unimportant compared to the 200-and-greater category.

Early in the pandemic, no one knew the pandemic would still be disrupting dairy markets more than a year later. It would be interesting see how the same farms would answer this question now. A second round of CFAP payments was made, and perhaps a third round is coming.

There are many more results and details in the survey than space allows for this article. However, if interested in the full 2020 Pennsylvania Dairy Survey report, visit Center for Dairy Excellence.  end mark

Zach Myers
  • Zach Myers

  • Risk Education Manager
  • Center for Dairy Excellence
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