The British Are Coming

Published on: 13:29PM Sep 17, 2010

I’ve received a couple inquiries recently from news media outlets in Great Britain that are doing stories on what apparently is a big deal, figuratively and literally, in England:  plans to build an 8,000 cow dairy in Lincolnshire.

It’s a big story because it would be the largest dairy farm of its kind in the U.K., and more to the point, British animal rights groups are agitating against it.  So at least some media in England, wanting to know what a “factory farm” is really like, are coming here.

What I’ve told them is that an 8,000 cow farm is very large by U.S. standards as well.  There are probably a few dozen of that size in the U.S., but a quick look at USDA statistic indicates that the total number of dairy farms of more than 2,000 cows in the U.S. is 730 (that’s out of 55,000 total dairy farms).  Once you get above 5,000 herd size, however, the total shrinks quickly – although I’m not aware of any authoritative citations for how many have 5, 6, or 8 thousand plus cows.  But it’s just as much an exception here in the states.

It’s rather amusing because when one of the news producers wanted to visit a large U.S. farm, she said that anything less than 4,000 is not big enough, because they already have those there.   Which leads me to wonder why this is really news.

Indeed, while the media outlets want to look to the states for this type of “large U.S. vs. small U.K.“ comparison, it’s important to point out that just as larger farms – however “large” is defined, since it is completely a subjective assessment – provide the majority of our milk supply, the same can be said in just about every other developed country, including those in the EU such as Netherlands and Germany, as well as places ranging from Saudi Arabia, to South Africa, to Australia. 

At the same time, the average herd size in the U.S. is 170.  And about 90% of dairy farms have fewer than 200 cows.  So it’s important to keep in mind that while there are certainly some farms of this scale in the U.S., the vast majority are much smaller.

I certainly hope that as part of the investigation about large-scale agriculture, the numbers behind the numbers are examined, and by that I mean, once you’ve counted cows on a given farm, what have you really measured?

Based on most metrics that look at both milk quality and animal care, there is nothing inherently bad or deficient about larger operations, nor inherently good about “small” (however that is defined) farms….and the converse is also certainly true.  There are good farm managers across the spectrum of farm sizes, and the converse is true once more.  Newer farms, of any size, tend to be more conducive to animal care because they recognize the advancements made in animal care in past decades. 

The fact is that in the U.S., we get more milk from fewer cows today than in the past.  Farms have trended larger, and gotten more productive.  The same certainly can be said about just about every other business in this country, as that tends to be the natural evolution of scale in our economy.  Size matters, here and in England, but maybe not in the ways that some assume.