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The dairy industry in 50 years

There have been dramatic changes in the dairy industry over the past 50 years. The U.S. is producing 60 percent more milk from 30 percent fewer cows than in 1967. This is because each cow produces over 2.5 times as much milk as 50 years ago. There is no reason to believe changes over the next 50 years will be less dramatic.

Recently, ten experts wrote in the Journal of Dairy Science about what they believe the changes may be in the next 50 years. Below are some of their thoughts.

Global changes

World population growth

Greater world population and consumption per person is expected to increase the worldwide demand for dairy products.

African and Asian countries will account for 93 percent of the population increase. However, will people in these areas have the income to purchase dairy products from areas of excess production?

North America will continue to have the most tillable land per person and the infrastructure and technology to produce dairy products efficiently. Will countries with rapidly growing populations invest in infrastructure to produce their own food or will they develop reliable partnerships to import their food?

Graph showing change in number of days in the growing season in Minnesota from 1895 to 2014
Change in Minnesota’s number of frost free days

Climate change

Climate change and limits in water availability could potentially shift areas of dairy production in the U.S. Milk production may shift from the hot dry areas of the west and southwest to the Midwest, Great Lakes and Canada.

According to the EPA, Minnesota’s current growing season is about 15 days longer than at the start of the twentieth century and could increase by another 15 days.

Cows and herds of the future


These researchers predict that dairy cattle of the future will be gene based, not breed based.

Gene editing will allow us to move genes within and among the breeds of cattle. Cows will be designed for specific environments and facilities. We will select genes for heat tolerance and disease resistance. Some diseases may become extinct. Smaller, more efficient cows will become the norm.

Genetic technologies have dramatically shortened the generation interval and this is expected to continue. In the future cows will be selected for improved nutrient efficiency and less methane excretion. Sexed semen (male and female) may become the norm on most farms in the future.

Precision management 

Dairy farms will continue to become more automated with sensors and robotics.

Integrated sensors and the use of artificial intelligence are rapidly developing. Sensors will be integrated in a cloud based system with farm based algorithms that will be used to monitor and improve crop and soil health, animal welfare, and water and air quality.

Technology will increase labor efficiency.

Lateral integration

Chart of shapes with text in them showing where feed centers, shared transition, shared heifers, shared calves, shared dairy beef and shared dry cows would be interspersed among milk cows.
Potential lateral integration of dairy facilities

Smaller farms may use lateral integration to remain competitive. They may share facilities such as heifer raising, feed centers and equipment.

Cows could be fed and managed 24 hours per day in a specialized shared transition cow facility to optimize health and well-being.

After the transition period, cows could move to the owner’s main milking herd. Youngstock heifers, dry cows and, potentially, dairy beef could also be managed in shared facilities.

Feed could be stored and mixed in shared feed centers. This is a paradigm shift from our current model, but could allow smaller farms to remain economically viable.

Black swan events

These predictions are based on the opinions of industry experts and industry trends. But, it is always dangerous to try to predict the future based on the past. Below are some black swan events that could change the direction of the dairy industry.


California has a mandate to reduce methane emissions by 40 percent by 2030. This will have a dramatic effect on their industry. This or similar mandates throughout the U.S. could increase the cost of production and alter the direction of the industry.

Non-Government Organizations (NGO) 

These are nonprofit organizations that operate independently of any government. Typically, their purpose is to address social or political issues. Some examples include PETA, HSUS and Sierra Club. These organizations are powerful and may influence available technologies and production practices more than government regulations. They have massive budgets and are very media savvy. They influence consumer demand through media campaigns and grassroots efforts.

Consumer demands and preferences

Millennials and generation Z are rapidly becoming the generation with the biggest purchasing power. Their dietary preferences are very different than previous generations. They value experiences and personalization over cost. Will the trend to non-dairy continue? Long term, will these consumers reject or accept milk beverage and meat substitutes or will they want the real products? Will these new consumers reject big ag? Think about the beer industry. Large companies like Miller and Budweiser struggle as craft beer sales have skyrocketed, due largely to preferences of this generation.

No one really knows for sure how the dairy industry will evolve. But this is not anything new. Fifty years ago, no one could have predicted milking robots or that cows would commonly produce 40,000 of milk in a lactation.

It is important to keep an open mind, analyze trends and make the best decision for the farm to remain competitive in the future. As Yogi Berra once said, “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Jim Salfer is an Extension educator at the regional office in St. Cloud. 

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