Dairy farms have gotten larger in the Northeast over the past 20 years, but there are a lot fewer of them today.
In 2017, the average dairy between Maine and Virginia had 94 cows, compared to 60 cows in 1997.
Over that time, almost half the dairy farms in the region disappeared.
Those findings come from data in USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years.
The 2017 numbers, released this April, don’t account for the hundreds of farmers who stopped milking last year.
But when compared with numbers from two decades ago, the data point to some long-term trends and changes in the industry.
It’s clear, for example, that midsized dairies disappeared faster than either tiny or massive operations.
Many of these modest farms have exited the business, but plenty of others have climbed into higher size categories.
Maryland lost 70% of its herds with 50 to 99 cows over the past two decades — even while the state added its first 1,000-cow dairies.
Connecticut saw a net decrease in dairies of all scales except the very largest. Like Maryland, Connecticut has seen its first herds crack four digits in the past 20 years.
Nowhere is the trend toward bigger dairies more evident than in New York.
In 1997, the state had 90 farms with more than 500 cows. It now has almost 300 such farms, including one with over 5,000 cows.
At the same time that these large dairies were being developed, the number of midsized farms dropped by 60%.
Despite a 10% drop in cow numbers, New York still has 630,000 cows, the most in the region.
Pennsylvania, of course, remains a key player in the Northeast, with half a million cows.
The state, which has policies designed to help small farms stay in business, also has the most dairies in the Northeast, about 7,000.
Pennsylvania’s average herd size is 76 cows, roughly half the average herd in New York.
Still, Pennsylvania has seen growth in large farms. Like its northern neighbor, Pennsylvania added its first 1,000-cow dairies in the past 20 years, just not as many.
The two states have two-thirds of the cows in the region.
Third-place Ohio was the only state in the region to increase its cow numbers over the past two decades, though only by 3%.
Like New York, Ohio has seen a dramatic increase in large dairies. In 1997, Ohio had just seven farms over 500 cows. By 2017, it had 75.
Ohio is the only state in the region besides New York to have a 5,000-cow dairy.
Still, for all of its expansion in herd size, the Northeast doesn’t have many mega-dairies compared to some of the Western states.
Texas has 25 dairies of 5,000 cows or more, and California and Idaho both have 35.
In fact, Idaho’s 35 largest dairy farms have more cows than do all 3,300 dairies in Ohio.
And while Idaho has added thousands of cows in every Ag Census for the past 20 years, every state in the Northeast has shed a staggering percentage of its dairy farms over that time.
Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maine lost the smallest share, just over 40%, while Rhode Island’s decline of over 70% was the steepest. The Ocean State had just 16 dairies left in 2017.
Despite the loss of 16,000 dairy farms (almost half the number that existed in 1997), the Northeast’s cow numbers have dropped only moderately — by 300,000, to 1.8 million.
The losses varied greatly by state.
Pennsylvania lost almost 100,000 cows, more than the number that are still milked in all of Virginia, but the decline amounted to just 16% of Pennsylvania’s cows.
Rhode Island, West Virginia and New Jersey combined shed only 25,000 cows, but those losses subtracted more than 60% of the herds in those states.
The Northeast’s small, urbanized states can scarcely be expected to compete with bigger, more rural states in the scale of their dairies, but that doesn’t mean dairy farming is hopeless in those states.
Across the Northeast, the tiniest dairies — those with less than 10 cows — have proved more resilient than midsized dairies.
Maine lost less than 15% of these micro-dairies, compared to roughly 60% of its midsized operations.
Some of these farms may simply be homesteads with a small show string or a family cow, but others may be making cheese or other dairy products at a small scale.
As dairy promoters like to note, the Northeast is densely populated, and its farmers are close to both consumers and ports.
While the number of dairy farms has fallen, the Northeast still has lots of farms, lot of cows — and some measure of opportunity.
Here’s how the 14 states considered above stack up, ranked by number of cows in 2017:
New York: 628,245 cows on 4,648 farms.
Pennsylvania: 527,617 cows on 6,914 farms.
Ohio: 269,069 cows on 3,346 farms.
Vermont: 128,742 cows on 841 farms.
Virginia: 87,322 cows on 1,048 farms.
Maryland: 48,211 cows on 511 farms.
Maine: 30,443 cows on 450 farms.
Connecticut: 20,170 cows on 198 farms.
New Hampshire: 13,118 cows on 216 farms.
Massachusetts: 12,071 cows on 220 farms.
West Virginia: 7,242 cows on 458 farms.
New Jersey: 6,354 cows on 109 farms.
Delaware: 4,560 cows on 50 farms.
Rhode Island: 833 cows on 16 farms.