We are now more aware than ever of the impact human activities have on the environment and other species. This awareness has brought criticism, some of it well deserved, on the agricultural industry, including dairy farming. It now seems an appropriate time to ask ourselves just how important dairy farming is.
Dairy farming plays a vital role in many local economies and in global economics. More areas of the world are also becoming increasingly reliant on the dairy industry as a source of nutrition. While there are areas for improvement, dairy farming continues to have a crucial role in today's world.
It is far too easy to criticize dairy farms for being unsustainable or cruel to the cows without being aware of the reality and bigger picture. In this article, we will seek to highlight just how essential dairy farming truly is while also being honest about where the industry could improve. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about the importance of dairy farming.
Why Is Dairy Farming Important?
Many people fail to realize the scope of dairy farming. Milk has a nasty habit of spoiling rather easily, which means that dairy farms need to be relatively close to the consumers they supply.
This means that while there are hubs, dairy farming is geographically a far more spread out industry. As a result, people see their local dairy farms but often fail to realize just how widespread dairy farming (and dairy consumption) truly is.
There are over 150 million farms that own at least one animal for the production of dairy around the world, and over 80% of the world's population eat or drink dairy products regularly. Dairy is everywhere, and as such, it has an enormous impact on the planet.
This article will be looking at four specific areas in which dairy farming has a significant and visible impact:
Whether you drink milk regularly or not, dairy farming has likely inadvertently affected you. So let’s dive into the specifics of what makes this agricultural sector so vital.
Cultural: What Would We Lose without Dairy Farms?
With the ability to simply walk into a store and buy a fully processed and packaged product, we often forget just where so many of the things we enjoy come from. There are a lot of things that we would lose without dairy farms, such as:
There are many more foods beyond this list, but losing dairy farms is not just about losing certain types of food. Food is an integral part of the culture. Many cultural cuisines rely heavily on different types of yogurt as well as particular types of cheese.
Thus, the dairy products we eat are not just the food we consume. For many people, they are an essential part of their culture. They help define who we are and allow us to share that with others. Without dairy farms, none of that would be possible! Therefore, food is a vital part of human society, and we should never undervalue the industries that bring that food to us.
Dairy Farming as a Way of Life
Dairy farming impacts culture in ways besides the food we eat. Dairy farms exist all around the world. Although the exact procedures and look of dairy farms may differ, the general process of getting milk from animals is something that people from all nations and cultures practice.
While we may think of dairy farming as a few large operations, the reality is much more widespread. There are millions of dairy farms worldwide, and the majority of them are small and run by families. These farms are more than a business for the people who own them.
People all over the world have a career and life that revolves around dairy farming. Therefore, dairy farming is vital to their way of life.
Dairy Farming’s Place in the Economy
It can be easy to underestimate how important dairy farming is from an economic standpoint because the industry is so widespread, but dairy farming makes up a significant part of many rural economies and contributes to a large part of the global agriculture sector.
To truly understand the economic impact of dairy farms, let’s look at the local, domestic, and global scale.
Dairy Farming and Local Economies
As we have already noted, dairy farming is a widespread industry. This means that instead of being centralized to a few areas, dairy farms can be found all over, and this means they bring economic benefits to a large number of areas.
Many people have the false impression that most dairy farms are large industrial-style operations. However, 87 percent of all dairy farms own less than 200 cows, and most dairy farms are owned and operated by families. Dairy farms are often a staple of local business.
Dairy farms thus have a massive impact on the local economy, especially in rural areas. They are a source of jobs, and since dairy farms tend to be owned and operated by families, the profits stay within the local community better. Dairy farms can be a vital source of economic stimulation for many rural areas where other jobs and capital are scarce.
Many large industries concentrate jobs in urban centers and even outsource much work to save money. The dairy industry is one of the few large sectors that reaps benefits for its local community. Dairy farms are absolutely essential for many small rural economies.
The Importance of Dairy Farms for Local Communities
While dairy farming is a global trade, local farmers are important to their communities, especially in rural areas. Some of the ways dairy farms help local communities are:
- Employing people in the area
- Stimulating the economy
- Inviting the community to the farm
- Bringing nutrition to remote areas
Dairy production and processing require a significant workforce to operate, especially if a farm has hundreds of dairy cows. This means that farms will employ people who live locally to help to manage the cows and collect their milk.
Dairy Farmers will also need to make regular trips to the hardware store, tractor dealership, and feed stores, doing business on a regular basis with the local shops. This flourishes the local economy as farmers will need to buy things to keep their cows happy and healthy for better milk production.
Dairy Farms are not just workplaces; many farmers invite the community to learn about agriculture, enjoy the natural setting, or participate in events. Farms also provide tours or special events, like sunrise yoga classes, to build relationships with locals. Dairy Farms can even become a tourist spot if it is renowned for its dairy products.
The Impact of Dairy on the Domestic Economy
While the economic benefits of dairy farming are certainly felt at the local level, the impact can also be seen on national economics.
The dairy industry creates around 3 million jobs and $159 billion in wages in the United States. That’s about 2% of all the jobs in the US. So, there can be no doubt that dairy farming creates jobs and stimulates the economy.
Furthermore, dairy farming makes up 1% of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP), coming in at around $628 billion in economic impact. Therefore, dairy farming is a big enough industry to directly impact the nation’s economy.
The Economic Impact of Dairy on the World
But to truly see how important dairy farms are to the economy, we have to look at the global scale. Worldwide the dairy industry contributes to over 240 million jobs. Suppose we include not just the people directly employed by the industry but also those whose livelihoods depend on it in some way. In that case, the number jumps to 400 million.
Dairy farming also makes up a chunk of the global trade game. In 2019, exported dairy products amounted to a worth of $54 billion, which was up by $2 billion from the previous year.
The total worth of the dairy industry worldwide in US dollars was 718.9 billion in 2019, and that number is expected to increase by almost 44% to 1032.7 billion by 2024. There is no doubt that dairy farms are a source that spreads a lot of money and jobs, and this impact is expected to continue to increase rapidly.
There are a lot of people reliant on dairy farming. It is one of the few industries that can be found in some form in almost every country. As more countries embrace dairy and food demands continue to rise, it is almost certain that the dairy industry will continue to expand, generating even more revenue, trade, and jobs around the world.
Dairy Farms and Gender Equality
One interesting thing to note about the impact dairy has on a worldwide economic scale is its inclusion of women. Let’s look at the numbers:
In rural areas around the world, dairy farming offers a way for women with few resources to better their position. It may seem strange, but dairy farming is helping to bring gender equality to the agricultural sector around the world. In many countries where agriculture is still the primary source of jobs, this is of high importance for women.
Importance of Dairy to World Nutrition
There are substantially more people on Earth now than ever, and the population is only rising. So feeding all of those people is becoming of growing concern for many.
Dairy plays a significant role in feeding the world’s population. There are close to 8 billion people on the planet, and over 6 billion of those people consume dairy.
Dairy is vital to the growing food crisis because of its widespread use and nutritional value. Dairy is rich in protein and many micronutrients, making it an important nutrition source for many populations, especially if they are affordable. In areas of the world where meat is hard to come by, dairy is a nutrient-packed and more widely available source of protein.
How Nutrient Dense Is Milk?
We keep saying that milk is nutritious, but what does that mean? Well, let’s break down the contents of one cup of whole cow milk. Please keep in mind that these are approximations and not exact values.
With fat, sugar, and carbs, milk can provide you with energy to burn, and being 88% water; it also keeps you hydrated at the same time. The high protein levels are also great, especially for people who do not have access to large meat sources.
That is not everything you will find in milk, though. There are also several essential vitamins and minerals, including:
All of these are important for human health. Milk not only gives you the necessary energy, but it also provides nutrients to keep you healthy. For example, milk can help with bone health and even blood pressure.
Milk is fantastic food, which is one reason why dairy farms play such an important role in the world. Making this food accessible is an important task that can benefit many people, especially those suffering from malnourishment.
How Much Milk Does the World Consume?
Without even diving into the vast number of other dairy products, we can see just how important dairy is to feeding the world by looking at milk consumption. Here are the countries that consumed the most milk in 2020. (Note: These stats are in million metric tons.)
Milk Consumption (million metric tons)
That’s a total of 181.345 million metric tons or around 47.9 billion gallons, and that is only looking at liquid milk consumption (not other dairy products), and this is only the top ten countries. Needless to say, the world drinks a lot of milk!
How Do Dairy Farms Produce Enough Milk?
Dairy farms thus have a lot to do. They have to produce all that milk to drink, plus enough leftovers to make other dairy products such as cheese, butter, yogurt, and much more. For example, India may drink the most liquid milk in the world, but an enormous part of their dairy industry goes to the production of curd, yogurt, ghee, lassi, and other products.
How do dairy farms keep up with such massive demand? Let’s take a look at the largest milk producers by country. (Note: These numbers are in million metric tons.)
Milk Production (million metric tons)
The top ten milk-producing countries thus produce 496.71 million metric tons or around 131 billion gallons. That’s enough to fill close to 200,000 Olympic swimming pools. In other words, the world uses a lot of milk, and dairy farms are what provide this.
How Serious Is the Food Crisis?
In more developed nations, it can be easy to underestimate the severity of the impending food crisis with the world’s rising population. Right now, the world has a population of around 8 billion. Estimates say that it will reach approximately 10 billion by 2050.
That may not seem like a big jump at first, but that’s a 25% increase. The world is not adequately feeding its entire population now, and by 2050 we will need 25% more food. That means that instead of 131 billion gallons of milk, we will need to produce close to 164 billion gallons.
Of course, dairy is hardly the only food group, so why is it so important to the world’s nutritional needs?
Dairy is one of the fastest renewing food sources. It takes weeks or months to grow to produce and even longer to raise a cow for meat, but you can milk a cow every day. There is no other food source that is so nutritious and which renews itself so quickly.
Not only do dairy animals provide a food source you can access every day, but they also produce quite a bit. Dairy cows can produce around 7 gallons of milk a day, which is enough to provide valuable nutrition for a whole family.
Dairy farming will certainly not fix all of the world’s food shortages, but in the face of a growing population, it would be foolish to deny how valuable dairy farming is and can be for feeding the world.
The Environmental Impact of Dairy Farming
Now we turn to the point of controversy. As the world turns more attention to sustainability, many wonder if dairy farms are worth their negative impact on the environment.
So what exactly is the negative impact of dairy farming, and is it all grim news?
The Negative Impact of Dairy Farming on the Environment
Cows are smelly and messy animals, and dairy farming requires a lot of cows. Dairy farms have been shown to contribute to the greenhouse gas effect and climate change because of the large amounts of methane produced from both the cows’ natural digestion (burps and farts) and the manure.
Dairy farms can also contribute to pollution if fertilizers and manures are allowed to drain into waterways. There is also some worry that increasing demand for dairy will cause the farms to expand and take over more ecologically diverse areas.
Is There a Solution?
One of the great concerns with dairy farming is the production of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Unfortunately, you cannot make cows stop producing these gases, but this does not mean that dairy farming is doomed to cause climate change.
Many dairy farmers recognize the need for more sustainable practices. By using equipment with fewer carbon emissions and better methods for handling animal waste, dairy farms are finding ways to lessen their impact on climate.
Dairy Farming and the Cows
Another frequent critique of dairy farming is the inhumane treatment of the animals. This complaint arises mainly from the fact that many people view dairy farms as large industrial-style complexes where the cows are never allowed outside.
It would be foolish to pretend that this is not the case in some places, but we must remember that even in the United States, 87% of dairy farms are smaller operations with less than 200 cows. There are dairy farms that graze their cows in open fields and treat the animals humanely.
Do Cows Like to Be Milked?
The modern dairy cow has been created after many years of selective breeding. As we already noted, today’s cows can produce 7 gallons of milk a day, and that is a lot for a cow to carry around.
Dairy cows generally like to be milked because it means they do not have to walk around with an uncomfortably full udder. In fact, if a dairy cow goes too long without being milked, the udder will become swollen and painful.
Dairy cows have been bred to exist alongside human beings in a particular role. There are currently around 270 million dairy cows in the world. Without dairy farming, it is unclear what exactly would happen to these millions of cows and the gallons of milk they produce.
Are Cows the Only Animal Used for Dairy Farming?
While cows are what we tend to think of when we picture dairy farms, they are not the only animals that are used on dairy farms around the world. Let’s look at which animals make up the dairy industry:
- Cows – 81%
- Buffalo – 15%
- Goats – 2%
- Sheep – 1%
- Camels – 0.5%
Other less common sources of milk that are used in some parts of the world include:
While more developed countries rely almost solely on cows, developing countries primarily get their milk from other animals.
As the demands for dairy increase, some of these other animals could become a means to increase dairy production without putting more strain on dairy cows.
Is Dairy Farming Worth It?
While there are environmental and ethical concerns about dairy farming practices, the importance that dairy farms serve towards both the world’s economics and nutritional needs cannot be underestimated.
Dairy farms may often appear as a local business, but they represent an enormous industry that employs and feeds millions of people.
Small Farms vs. Mega-Dairies
One primary reason that dairy farms get such a bad rap is because of mega-dairies. These dairies house cows in tight quarters where the density of the animals leads to the severe emission of greenhouse gases. The conditions at these dairies are also what most people criticize as inhumane.
Smaller farms keep cows in more open spaces, which is better for both cows and the environment. Unfortunately, right now, even though the small dairies far outnumber the large mega productions, the large dairies produce most of the milk, which is making it harder and harder for smaller practices to stay in business.
The enormous dairies that are being so heavily criticized are only one side of dairy farming. Small farms need support because they offer a way to reduce the flaws of dairy farming and maintain the importance of this crucial sector.
How Can We Improve Dairy Farming?
Of course, recognizing the importance of dairy farming does not mean that we ignore its flaws. On the contrary, there are ways to improve the sustainability and ethical practices of dairy farming.
As we have already said, it is mainly smaller farms that are leading the way in these areas. Small family-operated dairy farms have much smaller emissions and pollution problems than enormous dairies. They are also able to employ better animal care, such as keeping the cows in the pasture and raising them on grass.
Dairy farming in this way can even be good for the environment! Cows help to keep pasture land maintained naturally without the need for heavy equipment to stop overgrowth. They are nature’s lawnmowers. Grass feeding dairy cows also means dairies do not have to tear up land to grow food to feed their cows, which results in even less machinery use.
The Current State of Dairy Farming
Even though dairy farming is essential to the entire world, many people in the industry are suffering. While dairy production and sales are on the rise, many farmers fail to make a net profit. The number of dairy farms in the United States has been in steady decline since 1992 as it becomes harder and harder to turn a profit.
Why is it so hard to make money in dairy farming recently? Supply and demand have been out of sync for a while. Dairy farms are producing more dairy products than the market wants, resulting in low prices that are not allowing farmers to break even.
Unfortunately, it is the smaller dairy farms that use more sustainable practices that are taking the brunt of these issues. Smaller farms, which make up the majority, must either ramp up their production to make up for the low sale prices or go out of business and ramping up production typically means turning to less sustainable methods.
Dairy farming is crucial to many small areas and the world as a whole, yet many are unaware of the problems the industry is facing. Seeking to support dairy farms as they attempt to improve and move forward with better practices is vital because doing without dairy farms is simply not an option.
Dairy farming is a strangely local yet global industry that affects millions of people and which the majority of the world relies on upon in some way. New concerns have pointed out some of the issues with the industry. Still, there is certainly a way forward for this crucial industry.
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