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OPINION: What kind of dairy industry does Canada want?

Modest-sized dairy farms are economic engines in the rural economy of every province across Canada



Lost in the discussion about NAFTA/USMCA are the tremendous structural differences between the Canadian and U.S. dairy industries that most Canadian consumers are not aware of. The Canadian dairy industry has been structured, through supply management, to maintain modest-sized farms that are economic engines in the rural economy of every province.

Canada has historically produced milk to meet our domestic demand, no more. Canadian farmers, through progressive feeding and breeding programs, have managed to do this with 13 per cent less cows in 2014 than they had in 2000, which helps reduce the environmental footprint through efficiency. Between 1995 and 2012 the U.S. dairy industry decreased cow numbers by only 2.5 per cent.

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The most drastic contrast between the Canadian and U.S. dairy industries are number of cows per farm (herd size). In Canada in 2014, the average herd size was 79 cows. Production is relatively evenly spread across herds with few herds above 200 cows and very few above 500. By contrast in 2012, only 15 per cent of the U.S. milk supply was produced on herds less than 100 cows.

That same year, the bottom 32 per cent of herds by size produced only 1.6 per cent of the U.S. milk supply, while a whopping 33 per cent of the milk came from the 1.3 per cent of herds larger than 2,000 cows.

Larger herds mean less herds and that has had a profound effect on rural communities across America with the number of dairy farms decreasing from 139,670 to 49,331 between 1995 and 2012.

There are single farm enterprises in the United States that produce more milk than the 165 farms that dot the P.E.I. landscape and are an integral part of our rural fabric. We simply have to ask ourselves “What kind of dairy industry does Canada want”?

(Data from "Changes in the dairy industry affecting dairy cattle health and welfare" published by Barkema et al 2015. J Dairy Sci. 98:7426-7445.)

- Dr. Shawn McKenna, Associate Professor/Farm Service Chief, Department of Health Management, Atlantic Veterinary College

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