Posted on February 13, 2013
In the popular imagination, dairy is still largely associated with the fluid milk we drink. Highly visible “Got Milk?” and “Milk Mustache” ad campaigns have probably added to this public perception. Meanwhile, the per capita consumption of fluid milk has dropped by almost 30% since 1970 simultaneously as the per capita cheese consumption in the US has increased by 177%!
This raises the question: Are cows being used largely for the fluid milk we drink or for the cheese we eat? To find the answer, we have to ask another question: how many pounds of raw milk produced by a cow makes one pound of cheese or one pound of any other dairy product? The answers will let us compare a cow’s output consumed as cheese to that consumed as fluid milk or any other dairy product.
Raw milk produced by a cow is mostly water by weight, with about 3.7% fat and about 8.7% of nonfat solids such as protein, lactose, and minerals like calcium. There are two ways to estimate the milk equivalent of dairy products: by the fat content and by the skim (nonfat) solids content. The following bar graph shows the number of pounds of cow’s milk required to make one pound of each of the most commonly consumed dairy products (by both milkfat and skim solids basis), as documented in a 2006 report by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
equivalent to 1 pound of each dairy product
Using these numbers for the milk equivalency of dairy products we can better compare the impact of our consumption habits on cows. But, it is still a non-trivial exercise because we have to be careful not to double count when a dairy product is a byproduct of another dairy product. For example, suppose it takes about 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese or 1 pound of dry whey. It would be incorrect to then add up the numbers and say that it takes 20 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese and 1 pound of whey. Since whey is often a byproduct of cheese manufacture, about 10 pounds of milk is enough to make both 1 pound of cheese and 1 pound of whey.
The USDA provides annual reports on per capita food availability numbers (which can be used as a proxy for per capita consumption). Combining the milk equivalency numbers mentioned earlier with the data from the most recent USDA food availability reports on dairy, the following graph plots the per capita consumption of each category of dairy products. Unlike in most per capita consumption graphs, this one does not report the number of pounds of each product consumed; instead, it reports the number of pounds of a cow’s milk required to produce the amount consumed per person. The USDA food availability numbers and the graph below both use the milkfat basis. The number for the “other” category is computed from the total consumption reported by the USDA, which compensates for any double counting of dairy products.
As the graph shows, more of the milk produced by cows is consumed as cheese than as any other dairy product. Now, dairy experts sometimes advocate the use of a weighted average of milkfat and skim solids basis to ascertain milk equivalency. So, you may now wonder if the dominance of cheese in dairy consumption would still be true if the data were plotted by skim solids basis instead. The answer, it turns out, is yes. By the skim solids basis, in 2010, 326 pounds of cow’s milk was consumed as cheese while only 196 pounds was consumed as fluid milk (flavored or plain; 1%, 2%, whole or skim) and only 50 pounds as dry whey and nonfat dry milk. Butter has so little skim solids that it barely enters the picture. So, considering either the milkfat basis or the skim solids basis, it is correct to say:
than as any other dairy product.
For animal advocates who are fighting for the cows and calves used and abused in the dairy industry, this fact points to a few implications.
- USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Dairy Programs, Econometric baseline model documentation. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
- USDA, Economic Research Service. Food availability (per capita) data system. August 20, 2012. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
- R. Jacobson. Calculating milk equivalents: Milkfat or total solids basis. Dairy Markets and Policy: Issues and Options, Cornell University. August 1992. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
- M. Moss. While warning about fat, U.S. pushes cheese sales. The New York Times, November 6, 2010. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
- USDA, Economic Research Service. Commercial disappearance of American cheese, other than American cheese. January 25, 2013. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
- USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service. Dairy: World markets and trade. December 14, 2012. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
- H. D. Norman, J. L. Hutchison and R. H. Miller. Use of sexed semen ... in the United States. Journal of Dairy Science, 93(8), 2010. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
- F. B. Norwood and J. L. Lusk. Compassion, by the pound: The economics of farm animal welfare. April 2011. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
The data show that Americans consume almost twice as much cow’s milk as cheese than as fluid milk. It suggests the need for a sharper focus on reducing cheese consumption, especially since fluid milk consumption is already on a steady 40-year decline while cheese consumption continues to rise. It has not helped that, as exposed in the New York Times, the USDA has worked behind the scenes with companies to increase the cheese content of products and market new cheese-laden products. Based on the most recent food disappearance data and export data released by the USDA, it appears that cheese consumption has continued to increase since 2010 and was at its highest level in 2012.
There is another product of the dairy industry not considered in the analysis above: veal, the meat of young, usually male, calves. Animal advocates, through the 80’s and the 90’s, successfully made veal into a controversial issue with images of tethered calves in tiny crates unable to ever turn around. Today, reduced demand due to the work of animal advocates, commercial reasons and the increased use of sexed semen that alters female/male birth ratios from 50/50 to 80/20 have all reduced the dependence of the dairy industry on veal production. According to the food availability data released by the USDA, per capita veal consumption in 2010, at just 0.4 pounds, was about 16% of what it was in 1970. According to agricultural economists Norwood and Lusk, if veal production were outlawed the number of cows used in the dairy industry would barely change.
Given current food habits and trends, cheese consumption today is the largest enemy of cows and calves in the dairy industry.