More cows harmed for cheese than for milk

In the popular imagination, dairy is still primarily 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 mainly 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.

Number of pounds of cow’s milk (at the producer)
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 then to 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.

Per capita consumption (assuming food availability as its proxy) of dairy products in the US (in pounds of an equivalent amount of milk produced by cows, by milkfat basis)

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:

More of a cow’s milk is consumed as cheese
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.

Sources cited
  1. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Dairy Programs, Econometric baseline model documentation. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
  2. USDA, Economic Research Service. Food availability (per capita) data system. August 20, 2012. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
  3. 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)
  4. M. Moss. While warning about fat, U.S. pushes cheese sales. The New York Times, November 6, 2010. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
  5. USDA, Economic Research Service. Commercial disappearance of American cheese, other than American cheese. January 25, 2013. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
  6. USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service. Dairy: World markets and trade. December 14, 2012. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
  7. H. D. Norman, J. L. Hutchison and R. H. Miller. Use of sexed semen and its effect on conception rate, calf sex, dystocia, and stillbirth of Holsteins in the United States. Journal of Dairy Science, 93(8), 2010. (link, accessed February 13, 2013)
  8. 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 80s and the 90s, successfully made veal into a controversial issue with images of tethered calves in tiny crates unable even to 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.



Fascinating, Harish! What I think is as fascinating is the relative number of deaths per calorie:

That's another bit that really changes focus.


I would never have guessed that cheese consumption was so much higher than consumption for other dairy products, and that this started happening way back in the '70's! Has overall consumption of dairy products increased over that time as well?

David Coman-Hidy

A fascinating and useful post, as always.


Spike, yes, the overall per capita dairy consumption has gone up since 1970 driven almost entirely by the rise in cheese consumption. It continues to rise even today!


Excellent stuff, thanks Harish!

Jack Norris

Another great post, Harish - thanks for doing the number crunching for the rest of us!


Another great and useful post, Harish! When discussing dairy, will be sure to keep that in mind.


Thanks for giving me some food for thought. My husband hates liquid milk and refuses to drink it, but he loves cheese and eats it daily. I can't seem to give up cheese completely, though I eat it less often. I really think cheese has addictive properties.




Are there any specific websites where one can find information about the practices of individual dairies and farms?


For anyone wondering why they can't give up cheese, look up casomorphins. It's an opiod analogue that forms when casein is broken down by the body. It's naturally found in the milk of many mammals, but is much more concentrated in cheese.

So, there may be some physiological dependence. I know I have occasional cravings, but once you put your foot down (especially after seeing extreme animal cruelty from making cheese), it's easier.


It is worth mentioning that the opiate-like substance casomorphins is present in milk to elicit a calming effect on nursing calves. It is present in all female mammals milk. Nature is splendidly designed. When we mess with it, we do devastating harm. The fact that cheese is in and on a huge percentage of foods people eat is by no means accidental or coincidental. The dairy industry wants everyone eating tons of cheese! Cheese addiction does a profit margin good!

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