Dairy Science Programs Struggle to Cope with Budget Issues

12/15/2012 7:00 AM

Chris Torres

Staff Writer

As the economy continues to sputter along and governments are cutting back on costs, colleges and universities are dealing with a harsh reality — having to do more with much less.

It’s no different for some of the large dairy science programs on the East Coast.

Programs at Virginia Tech and Cornell have taken painful cuts, while at Penn State, it’s becoming more of a struggle trying to maintain what the department head calls one of the nation’s last real viable dairy science programs.

“We are dealing with challenges of having the biggest undergraduate program in the college,” said Terry Etherton, head of what was once known as the department of dairy and animal sciences, now known simply as the department of animal science to reflect a restructuring of departments within the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Budget cuts have resulted in a smaller faculty along with a smaller staff at the college’s dairy farm, which houses nearly 500 animals.

The college’s restructuring, which was finalized earlier this summer, originally called for possible cuts in the number of animals the college owns, but that didn’t happen.

Of the 400 students in the department, Etherton said between 18 and 20 percent are interested in a career in dairy, whether on a farm or in the industry.

But growing the number of students, he said, will be a challenge as staff numbers continue to decline. “We are concerned about not growing it because we cannot have more kids with a shrinking workforce,” he said.

Then there is the looming “fiscal cliff” of budget cuts and tax hikes, scheduled to go into effect at the end of the year.

Etherton said he is greatly concerned about the possible impact to the department for not only the short term, but long term as well.

“Here’s our reality; what do we do to cash flow the department,” he said. “We’ve got a big time issue with how we’re going to feed the world in 40 years and our role within that.”

Virginia Tech’s department of dairy science has seen some significant cuts since 2007, when state funding started to significantly shrink.

The number of full-time, tenured track professors has gone from 14 to 7, according to Mike Akers, department head.

The department’s dairy herd has been cut and to add salt to the wound, students and faculty over the next few years will have to travel 12 miles to the college’s new dairy farm, since a new corporate park and airport expansion have forced dairy facilities off the main campus.

Still, Akers sees positives.

The new $21 million dairy farm, he said, will replace antiquated facilities currently in use, even though a new freestall parlor was built a few years ago on campus.

“We’ll be able to replace facilities that are quite old,” Akers said.

And the college is hiring a new professor, with a 60 percent Extension mission, which he said will benefit the state’s Extension program.

But future funding is a worry for Akers, since 80 percent of the money they get for research is external, much of that competitively bid from the federal government.

Significant cuts to the federal budget could result in more painful cuts to the department.

“The push for grants and contracts has never been stronger. The pressure is huge right now,” he said. “I’m an optimistic person. But yeah, we’re going to go through growing pains.”

At Cornell, funding to the university’s department of animal science, which includes the dairy program, has been cut by 15 percent over three years, according to W. Ron Butler, department chair.

It’s resulted in cuts to each of the department’s animal units, including dairy, to just the essential number of animals needed for teaching and research.

“Even though it wasn’t done in one fiscal year, cumulatively, it was tough,” Butler said.

State funding has been on a steady decline for the last 20 years. At the same time, student enrollment has held its own. The department is capped at the number of students it can accept and the college is still getting more applications than students it can accept.

“I think we’re fortunate that way,” he said.

Butler said he is concerned about maintaining specific specialties within the department’s dairy program. He’s confident an assistant will take over when he retires as a dairy reproductive physiologist. But a position in dairy nutrition, which will likely see a retirement in the next few years, may not be filled.

“If that one isn’t filled, that’s a definite example of where our dairy program will have an immediate, definite effect,” he said.

At the University of Maryland, Tom Porter, head of the department of avian and animal sciences, said budget issues have stabilized after the department got a 30 percent cut in state funding three years ago.

“It’s only been a total of 3 percent in the last two years,” Porter said.

The number of faculty members, originally reduced from 26 to 18, is back up to 22, with two more positions likely to be filled.

The research dairy in Clarksville has not seen herd numbers reduced, although a few years ago the entire herd was sold off because of falling milk prices. The herd was re-established when prices improved. The research animal farms are controlled by the university’s ag experiment station.

Student enrollment has actually increased 50 percent over the last 8 years, with 288 animal science majors right now, most of whom want to go to vet school, but between 40 and 50 take an animal management option, of which dairy is included.

But challenges remain. Half of the department’s “support staff” is on grant money, so when that grant money runs out, positions will likely be eliminated.

“There is no doubt, it puts all of the staff member in non-permanent positions. If grant money runs out, they lose their job,” he said. “Because those jobs aren’t secure, there is a potential to lose good employees.”

Half of the department’s funding, he said, comes from federal grants, which will be greatly affected if the fiscal cliff problem isn’t solved.

More money for research from private industry will likely have to flow to make up for potentially lost government money. Porter said the money is taken on two conditions — to run a trial or as an open donation to help a company do work on a specific project.

Still, it’s the sense of relying on private industry to pay for research that’s supposed to be unbiased that Porter sees as a growing concern not only in Maryland, but in other states too.

“I think that’s a legitimate concern and something that all of us should be aware of,” he said.

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

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