Dick Groves
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2008-2012: Interesting Changes In State-Level Milk Production

USDA’s National Ag Statistics Service recently released final estimates for milk production for the 2008-12 period, and as detailed in a story on page 10 in this week’s paper, there were some pretty interesting trends among the top 10 milk-producing states during that five-year period.

It starts right at the top, with California, the nation’s number one milk-producing state since 1993. Something very strange happened in California during the 2008-12 period: milk production actually declined.

A decline is not unusual for most states, but California isn’t like most states, at least when it comes to milk production growth over the past 35 years or so.

Specifically during the 2008-12 period, California’s milk production fell from 41.203 billion pounds in 2008 to 39.512 billion pounds in 2009, before rebounding the next three years, the NASS figures show.

Prior to the 2009 decline, California’s milk production hadn’t declined since 1978, when output of 11.859 billion pounds was down 109 million pounds from 1977. Needless to say, California’s milk production grew impressively after that.

And one reason it grew so impressively was because it grew every single year from 1979 until 2009. So just a decline in California’s milk production in 2009 makes these final NASS milk production estimates noteworthy.

While we’re on the subject of western states, Idaho (which ranked fourth in US milk production in 2008 and 2009 and then moved up to third in 2010-12) also posted a rare milk production decline over the 2008-12 period; like California, Idaho’s milk production in 2009 (12.15 billion pounds) was down from 2008 (12.315 billion pounds).

That decline in Idaho’s production wasn’t quite as rare as California’s; prior to 2009, Idaho’s milk output hadn’t fallen since 1991. But it was similar to California in that the dairy industry had grown pretty accustomed to Idaho’s milk production growing, year after year after year.

Also among the fast-rising western states is New Mexico, which last produced less than 1.0 billion pounds of milk back in 1988. New Mexico’s milk production then increased every year until 2007, which marked the beginning of a more volatile, less predictable era for milk production in the state. After rising again in 2008 and 2009, New Mexico’s milk production declined in 2010, rose in 2011 and then fell again in 2012.

And Texas also has grown steadily and impressively for more than a decade. After the state’s milk production declined in 2001, it grew every year until 2010, when it posted a slight decrease. Still, the state’s milk production grew enough over the 2008-12 period that it moved from seventh to sixth nationally in milk production during that period.

While four states that gained considerable attention for their consistent and sometimes spectacular growth starting in the 1980s or early 1990s experienced some rare production declines over the 2008-12 period, one state that definitely had its ups and downs starting in the late 1980s actually experienced a recent rarity over the 2008-12 period: Wisconsin’s milk production increased every year.

Wisconsin’s milk production had reached a record high of 25.0 billion pounds back in 1988. That record stood until it was finally broken in 2009.

From 1989 until 2004, Wisconsin’s milk production posted a total of nine declines, and reached a post-1988 low of 22.074 billion pounds in 2002.

Wisconsin’s milk production was still under 24 billion pounds in 2006, but reached 24.472 billion pounds in 2008, a record 25.239 billion pounds in 2009 and continued to increase, reaching 27.224 billion pounds in 2012.

The last time Wisconsin’s milk production showed such consistent growth was during the 1974-83 period, when output grew every year, from 18.713 billion pounds to 23.8 billion pounds.

The only other state among the top 10 milk-producing states to post production increases every year during the 2008-12 period was Wisconsin’s neighbor to the east, Michigan, where milk production rose from 7.763 billion pounds in 2008 to 8.991 billion pounds in 2012.

Michigan’s steady production increases over the 2008-12 period are different than Wisconsin’s in at least one way: while Wisconsin remained the number two milk-producing state over that entire period, Michigan’s growth actually enabled the state to move from number nine in milk production back in 2008 to number six (moving past both Minnesota and New Mexico) by 2012.

So, what do these five-year production trends tell us about the future of US milk production? For one thing, it tells us that annual production increases in the western states are no longer guaranteed. California, Idaho, New Mexico and Texas all experienced at least one year of reduced production during the 2008-12 period, which broke some pretty impressive streaks of consecutive production increases.

While it’s never easy to predict future production trends, due to issues ranging from the weather to prices for both milk and feed, it’s noteworthy that just one of those four western states (Idaho) saw its milk cow numbers increase every year over the 2008-12 period, while Texas saw its cow numbers drop in 2010 and both California and New Mexico had fewer milk cows in 2012 than in 2008.

Second, the Midwest appears to be on more solid footing now than it has in a number of years. Wisconsin and Michigan, the two largest milk-producing states in the region, provided two nice examples of that over the 2008-12 period.DG

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