We are dairy veterinarians in Plainview.
While Plainview is not in Winona County, many of our clients are Winona County dairy farmers. Our practice was founded 38 years ago, by Drs. Kevin Nigon and Jim Bennett.
They came to the area because of its beauty and because it had a very strong and progressive dairy industry. Indeed, our practice has grown and succeeded because of strength of the dairy industry here. However, we have concerns about our practice thriving in the future because of challenges the industry is facing.
Most of these challenges are not limited to our local area, such as low dairy prices, for example, but there are a few that are area-speciﬁc. The most signiﬁcant local challenge is the animal unit cap in Winona County. It is a challenge to the entire region.
When a dairy farmer considering expansion in a neighboring county hears about farms being denied expansion permits in Winona County, he or she may reconsider expansion because they do not want to go through a similar, lengthy and contentious process and be turned down too. They may not want to cause a conﬂict in their neighborhood. They also may fear that the support structure of nutritionists, processing plants, dairy equipment dealers, veterinarians and so on will no longer be here.
The Winona County dairy industry affects more than Winona County.
The Winona County dairy industry is indeed in serious trouble. The most recent USDA Dairy Census shows an 18.2% drop in cow numbers in Winona County in the 10 years from 2007 to 2017. Minnesota lost only 0.4% of its cows in the same period. Winona County lost 5,337 cows while the entire state only lost 1,951 cows.
The most recent study we could find regarding the economic value of a dairy cow comes from Iowa State University in 2013. Key ﬁndings of this study were:
- Each cow generates $23,445 of economic activity per year.
- Ten cows generate one full time job. Dairy has a huge impact on Winona County, and a loss of 5,337 cows represents a loss of more than $125 million per year. Yes. per year.
Thirty eight years ago. Winona County had larger-sized dairy farms than most, if not all, other dairy counties in Minnesota. Dairy herd sizes are growing all across the United States and in Minnesota. The majority of milk is produced by herds sized in the thousands of cows.
The average dairy size in Minnesota grew by 41% between 2007 and 2017, while the average farm size in Winona County grew by only 28%. This is most likely due to the animal unit cap here.
Winona County is now number six when the top 10 Minnesota dairy counties are ranked by herd size based on the 2017 data.
Few other dairy counties have animal unit caps in Minnesota. Herds are expanding to sizes currently not allowed in Winona County in those and other counties all across the United States.
Most of the growth in Minnesota counties has come from herds sized from 2,000 to 10,000 cows.
The bottom lint is that dairy farms need to be able to grow to compete with other dairy farms across the country and the world.
Nothing anyone does to regulate dairy farm size in Winona County will change that fact. We all may have opinions on what is the optimal size for a farm, but our opinions do not matter in determining whether a farm has a chance to be successful in a competitive landscape
Unless the animal unit cap in Winona County is removed soon, local dairy farmers will continue to be forced to exit the industry or to move to more dairy friendly counties elsewhere.
This is already happening. and all indications are that this trend will accelerate in the future. The negative impact on Winona County and to the entire region will be substantial.
We are encouraged that the Winona County Board of Commissioners has been discussing the existing animal cap recently, because dairy cows are good for Winona County and the cap needs to be removed to give local dairy farmers the opportunity to successfully compete.
James Bennett, Kevin Nigon, Lindsey Borst and Megan Weisenbeck are doctors of veterinary medicine who operate Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center, Plainview.