California - The Nation's Dairy Leader


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California is the nation’s largest farming state, producing more than 250 commercial food and fiber commodities, and dairy farming is the largest of these commodity groups. California has been the nation’s largest milk producer since 1993 and is also the country’s leading producer of butter, ice cream, nonfat dry milk and whey protein concentrate. It is the second largest cheese producer. 

More than 1,400 dairy families stand at the center of the state’s vast and growing dairy industry. The state’s dairies house 1.74 million milk cows. California’s growing dairy business comprises not just dairy farms and their suppliers, but dairy processors and manufacturers, along with dairy products wholesalers, retailers and foodservice suppliers. In 2015, California produced more than 19 percent of the nation’s cheese production and around a fifth of its milk supply.

The dairy industry makes a big economic contribution to the state. According to the CDFA, dairy farming is the leading agricultural commodity in California, producing $9.4 billion in annual sales by volume in 2015. The milk that leaves the dairy farm flows into society to become value-added products that create jobs and revenues in local communities.

Rapid Growth Since The 1970s

California’s dairy industry began a period of rapid growth in the 1970s that continues today. Shifting demographics and changing tastes have played a role in this growth, resulting in a wider variety of dairy products and increased growth in certain product categories.

Cheese is California’s fastest growing dairy product and over 46 percent of the state’s milk supply goes to cheese production. In the period between 1990 and 2015, California cheese production grew from 702 million to 2.4 billion pounds. California’s more than 50 cheesemakers make 250 different varieties and styles of cheese. Operations range from small producers famous for their handmade cheeses to some of the country’s largest cheese plants. In addition, cottage cheese production increased 11 percent from 2011 to 2015.

Following is an overview of California’s dairy industry and how its production of milk is being used today:

California Dairy Products Production (2015)
(California Department of Food & Agriculture data)

Milk (Total production)

40.9 B lbs


2.4 B lbs


580 M lbs

Ice Cream

126 M gals


465 M lbs

Cottage Cheese

111 M lbs

Nonfat Dry Milk

702 M lbs