Strong global demand and tight supply helped drive U.S. dairy exports to a second consecutive volume record in 2021 and a new all-time high in value. According to the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), U.S. export volume last year increased 10% over 2020 to more than 2.3 million metric tons (MT) milk-solid equivalent. Value rose 18% to $7.75 billion.

Export volume in 2021 was equivalent to more than 17% of U.S. milk produced last year, also an all-time high, USDEC said.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in U.S. dairy exports over the past two years,” said Krysta Harden, president and CEO of Arlington, Va.-based USDEC. “That growth is all the more impressive because it came in the face of the ongoing pandemic and a supply chain crisis that continues to challenge U.S. dairy export competitiveness.

“But it’s important to remember that this is a long-term progression,” she added. “U.S. exports have been rising for the past two decades, and the U.S. dairy industry — from farmers to manufacturers — have been doing the hard work to build and service demand for U.S. dairy for just as long. That investment in and dedication to export customers is one of the reasons why we’ve been able to face today’s challenges and grow the industry.”

USDEC shared some 2021 export highlights:

  • The U.S. set annual export records in cheese, nonfat dry milk/skim milk powder (NFDM/SMP), whey, lactose and fluid milk and cream. U.S. cheese shipments topped 400,000 MT for the first time, and whey surpassed 600,000 MT for the first time. NFDM/SMP fell just shy of 900,000 MT, topping out at 892,528 MT.
  • U.S. dairy exports to Mexico rebounded strongly in 2021 alongside Mexico’s economic recovery. U.S. cheese sales to Mexico set a record, rising 13% and exceeding 100,000 MT for the first time. U.S. NFDM/SMP sales to Mexico jumped 18% to 337,846 MT, the second highest in history. Mexico accounted for more than a quarter of total U.S. cheese exports in 2021 and 38% of U.S. NFDM/SMP shipments.
  • U.S. cheese exports jumped 14% in 2021 to 404,675 MT, led by strong demand from Latin America. Shipments to Central America soared 53%, and the additional 12,117 MT U.S. suppliers shipped there last year represent the largest cheese export gain to any major market. Exports to South America jumped 33%, while shipments to Mexico grew 13%.
  • U.S. suppliers had their best year for butterfat exports since 2014. Sales rose 121% to 57,487 MT, led by a tripling of volume to the Middle East/North Africa (MENA), but also supported by strong gains in many key markets, including Canada, China, Southeast Asia, South Korea and Australia.
  • Total U.S. exports to the MENA region soared in 2021 across product categories: butterfat +154%, cheese +39%, NFDM/SMP +51% and whey products +20%.
  • U.S. whey exports grew 10% to 613,944 MT in 2021, driven primarily by China, which accounted for 44% of total whey volume. U.S. whey sales to China rose by nearly 50,000 MT, as the nation rebuilt its pig herd from African swine fever in the first half of the year. Chinese purchasing declined sharply in the second half, as pork prices plummeted and herd expansion efforts halted. Vietnam, South Korea and Mexico recorded strong double-digit increases as well.
  • Southeast Asia remained the second-largest U.S. market in value terms, with the U.S. shipping nearly $1.4 billion worth of products to the region (an increase of 11% over the previous year). However, the region was the hardest hit by delays and cancellations caused by U.S. supply chain issues. That resulted in fairly flat volume performance overall, although Southeast Asia still accounted for 36% of U.S. NFDM/SMP exports, running a close second to Mexico.

“Strong underlying fundamentals continue to drive global demand for high-quality, affordable dairy nutrition,” said Harden. “We are optimistic that will continue to translate to opportunity for the U.S. dairy sector. At the same time, we remain realistic about the challenges, from supply chain issues to global economic performance.”

Michael Dykes, D.V.M., president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), also released a statement on USDA’s Feb. 8 news that U.S. agricultural exports, including dairy, set a record for value and volume in 2021. According to USDA, U.S. farm and food products to the world totaled $177 billion, topping the 2020 total by 18% and eclipsing the previous record set in 2014 by 14.6%. Moreover, U.S. agricultural exports logged 230.7 million metric tons of volume in 2021, another record.

“Today’s export figures demonstrate how the United States is poised to become the world’s leading supplier of dairy products thanks to the resilience and innovation of American dairy exporters and dairy foods companies,” Dykes said. “Consumers in the United States and around the world continue to demand more U.S. dairy because we provide an assortment of delicious, nutritious, affordable and sustainable dairy products. From high-value whey to award-winning cheeses, from milk powders used to make life-saving products for children and adults to safe and nutritious ESL milk, U.S. dairy is known throughout the world for quality and reliability.”

Although Dykes said the news “is certainly cause for celebration,” he noted that U.S. dairy exporters “remain severely challenged” by supply chain disruptions.

“According to industry estimates, export delays and supply chain challenges have cost the dairy industry more than $1.5 billion in lost opportunities,” he said. “Through the IDFA Supply Chain Task Force and Dairy Exports Working Group, IDFA members and partners continue to look for long-term solutions to help U.S. dairy exports reach greater heights in the months and years ahead. We encourage the Biden administration to remain active in removing bottlenecks, investing in infrastructure and looking at public-private solutions to ease supply chain challenges.”