By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Washington was the only state to gain dairy herds last year, and 33 states lost herds, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Only 16 states did not lose herds, the NASS reported.
NASS reported 49,331 licensed dairy herds in the U.S. in 2012, a loss of 1,960 herds from the previous year.
Eight states lost 90 or more herds, with Wisconsin topping the list, down 610 herds to 11,490. Minnesota came in second, down 200 herds to 4,125.
Washington gained 10 herds for a total of 480, delighting Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.
The organization has worked hard for about 10 years to create a good business climate for dairies -- and small, niche dairies in particular, he said. The state's Department of Agriculture deserves kudos for its work on comprehensive rules for niche dairies such as organic, raw milk and farmstead cheese operations.
The department has been extremely helpful in working with people who wanted to start those small dairies, he said.
In addition, Washington State University has held several well-attended cheese-making classes, he said.
All of that has paid off, he said. In addition, Washington's large dairies have been able to stay in business during tough times due to economies of scale, and more of them are running multiple dairies, he said.
Things were not so sunny in California, which was down 25 herds to 1,650. Idaho was also down 10 herds, to 565, and Oregon held steady at 270 herds.
In earlier interviews, Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen estimated the number of California dairies that shuttered their doors in 2012 was about 100.
NASS numbers reflect dairies that are licensed, and it's possible that the number of licenses in effect in 2012 is higher than the number of California dairies currently in operation, said Mike Miller, NASS dairy statistician in Washington, D.C.
It's also possible the number of licensed dairies was preliminary. If more California dairymen did go out of business, those numbers might be reflected in next year's annual report of licensed dairies, he said.
A call to the California Department of Food and Agriculture was not immediately returned on Friday.
As for milk cows and production, the number of cows in 2012 was 9.233 million, up 36,000 head from 2011, and milk production was up 4.26 billion pounds.
Since 2003, the number of licensed U.S. dairies has dropped by 21,044. The number of cows on those dairies has increased by 152,000 head, and annual milk production has increased nearly 30 billion pounds.
In California, the number of licensed herds has dropped by 410 since 2003, with 105 going out in 2010 after the industry crash in 2009.
Herd numbers are down 210 in Idaho, 80 in Oregon and 160 in Washington since 2003.
The overall trend in the U.S. dairy industry has been fewer dairies but increased milk production due to more milk per cow, Miller said.
"Despite higher feed costs and higher costs all around, somehow farmers keep squeezing out more milk," he said.
Dairy cow slaughter has been high, and dairymen might be culling cows so deep that only the best cows are left, he said.