Kansas dairy industry is growing, but small dairy farms continue to shrink

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Chase Hildebrand-Reed, 6, talks to the cows at Hildebrand Farms.

EMPORIA – Kansas’ dairy industry has grown significantly during the past two decades, with an outlook for continued growth. Milk production in Kansas during October 2020 totaled more than 330 million pounds. This is up 4% from last year, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

There are twice as many dairy cows in Kansas as there were twenty years ago. As of October, more than 170,000 dairy cows were in circulation. This number is 7,000 more than last year, the USDA reported.

According to Michael Brouk, Ph.D., a dairy specialist at K-State Research and Extension, Kansas dairy farmers added approximately 3,500 cows each year. Brouk expects this growth to continue. The trend to increase the herd started during the early 1990s when several dairies moved from other states to western Kansas due to the area’s less-expensive and available land, large feed supply and ideal temperatures. On the other hand, lack of both water and employees, remain challenges for growth.

Increase in production; decrease in farms

Because of advanced technology, there is an increase in milk production for both small and large dairies.

“We’re milking more cows, but we’re also getting more milk per cow,” Brouk said.

As the challenge for increased production continues, more small dairies are unable to keep up. Some are turning to value-added products, like cheese. Others are closing. According to Brouk, 15 small dairies in Kansas shut their barn doors in the last few years.

“When you’re a small dairy farmer, if you’re going to compete in the raw milk market we have today, you’ve either got to cut costs or have superior production methods,” Brouk said. “There is increased pressure on margins.”

Milk production per cow is up about 50% from where it was in 1998, reaching an average of more than 23,000 pounds per cow per year in 2019. Brouk credits Kansas producers and their management practices for these increases.

New technology

Other than with new technology, like robots, or introducing cheese or yogurt, agritourism may help small dairy farmers in the future.

“(With cheese) you’re becoming a processor,” he said. “But it’s not guaranteed (to help the business stay afloat).”

Hildebrand Farms, a small dairy in Junction City, utilizes agritourism on their farm. Because their cows are allowed to graze freely, the public can view them from the farm’s retail store. But the small dairy is not immune to costs of production and is looking into robotic milking – similar to what five large farms in Kansas are already doing.

Brouk said the investment for robotic milking is about $2,500 per cow. Conventional equipment on the other hand costs $250 per cow.

Alma Creamery in Alma, Grazing Plains Farm in Newton and Jason Wiebe Dairy Farm in Durham are several Kansas dairy farms producing cheese.

Last year, Jason Schmidt of Grazing Plains Farm began cheese production. He currently processes 10 to 20% of his milk into several types of cheeses.

“We’re still a long way away from getting out of the commodity milk market,” Schmidt said. “It’s kind of a long game (from producing only cheese) for me yet.”


Americans typically consume about 600 pounds of milk or milk products each year. Since Kansas currently produces more than 1million pounds, about half the milk produced in Kansas goes to other states.

How Americans consume dairy products has changed during the last two decades. Brouk said total dairy product consumption is up about 20% from where it was in 1975.

“We’ve had a decrease in fluid milk sales of about 42% but an increase in cheese sales of about 170%,” he said. “It’s not all about fluid milk anymore.”

The future

According to the USDA, the milk production forecast for 2021 includes higher milk prices. However, higher feed costs are expected to slow this rate of growth. The forecast for milk per cow in 2021 is up by 20 pounds per head.

This increased milk production and demand will be offset by an increase in feed. With an increase in both production and feed, the milk-feed price ratio, which is a measurement of dairy producers’ profit margins, should remain constant.

“For small dairies, there is an increased pressure on margin to figure out,” Brouk said. “Sometimes they can turn to generating other income, like value-added, agritourism or bed and breakfast.”


Jason Schmidt and his dairy cow, Buffalo, at Grazing Pl ains Farm in Newton, Kansas process cheese at his farm.