What Pennsylvania’s Dairy Industry Can Learn from an Olympian

8/18/2012 7:00 AM

If you haven’t had a chance yet to see the Chobani Greek Yogurt commercial paying tribute to US’s Olympic athletes and to the dairy farm families in central New York, you should. Chobani took an old factory, renovated it and revitalized a community. It is an amazing story.

When I saw that commercial, though, I thought of how the Olympics causes such excitement in our country and how the entire U.S. rallies around our athletes. We want them to bring home the gold. It gives our country and everyone in it a sense of pride and bragging rights for the coming year, even though most of us never had to train a day to win that gold medal.

One thing that we in Pennsylvania are proud of is the fact that our dairy industry is the fifth largest in the U.S. We have the second largest number of dairy farms in the nation, and more cows than every state other than California, Wisconsin, Idaho and New York. Dairy is also the largest part of the state’s agriculture industry, which is the largest industry in Pennsylvania.

Those are all things we can be proud of in this state. However, everyone knows that, if you’re standing still, everyone else will run by you. That’s what is happening in Pennsylvania. Ten years ago, the commonwealth ranked seventh in the top 23 dairy states in terms of milk production per cow. Today, we have fallen to the 20th spot on the list.

In those 10 years, the U.S. has increased average milk production per cow by 16 percent, while Pennsylvania’s average per cow is up less than 2 percent. In June 2012, our milk production per cow was 217 pounds, or 13.4 percent, below the national average. The other states are, in essence, running by Pennsylvania, and our stake as a national dairy leader is starting to erode.

So, how many dairy producers are reading this and wondering “why does that matter to me or my farm?” The reason to increase milk production per cow isn’t to give Pennsylvanians bragging rights. It is because more milk means more money for our dairy farm businesses.

In the past five years, the average cost of production for the U.S. dairy farm has increased by $3 per hundredweight, according to USDA. You often hear people say the last 10 pounds of milk is the cheapest to produce. In other states, milk production has grown to spread that increased cost over more pounds. But in Pennsylvania, we are expecting the same amount of milk to pay for a nearly 14-percent increase in cost.

Increasing milk production by just five pounds on a typical Pennsylvania dairy farm would translate to an additional 10,000 pounds a month. That additional 10,000 pounds would generate about $1,800 more a month in income. Anyone living in the current dairy environment knows every penny matters right now. On the average-sized dairy farm in our state, $1,800 could pay the breeding, electric and veterinary bills that month.

So, what does it take to get that extra five pounds of milk per cow per day? Here are five simple things that do not require a lot of money.

Providing a consistent source of feed. Getting forages harvested at the right time and under the right conditions can play a dramatic role on increased milk production. However, keeping a well-balanced, consistent source of feed in front of the cows at all times can also play a big role. Doubling the times feed is pushed in on a dairy can quickly result in a milk production boost.

Providing proper ventilation and cooling. A comfortable cow is a productive cow. Poor ventilation can limit cow comfort and hurt milk production in the summer and winter. Replacing old tin barn sides with curtains or adding a couple more fans are simple ways to improve air flow and increase milk production in traditional dairy barns.

Offering ample bedding and a clean water supply. Current industry standards call for at least eight inches of bedding in stalls. Broken stalls or stalls with little bedding can limit resting periods and lead to poor foot and leg health. Dirty water troughs can limit what the cow drinks. Cleaning stalls out during every milking, bedding stalls regularly and cleaning water troughs out weekly are easy ways to add more milk.

Using proper milk prepping procedures. Having a milking routine that ensures proper milk let down is critical to maximizing milk production. Consider writing down your milk prepping procedure, reviewing it with your veterinarian to ensure you’re doing what is needed, and providing it to all of your employees to make sure everyone is following a consistent routine.

Using good reproduction and genetic strategies. Keeping cows bred back and choosing bulls with high milk production can play a significant role in increasing milk per cow. One tactic could be to sit down with your A.I. representative and veterinarian to develop a reproductive strategy that meets your goals.

Any olympian — or any athlete — will tell you they are never satisfied with their current time. They are always working to beat it and get better. Using that same strategy to increase milk production per cow will result in greater profitability on the farm. Profitable dairy farms encourage milk processors to invest in the Northeast, which will provide an even stronger market for the milk supply and ultimately more money in the milk check.

Five pounds of milk per cow doesn’t seem like that much when you think about it. Treating a cow’s sore foot a little faster or pushing a cow’s feed in a little more often can mean the difference in those five pounds. But when you do those little things across an entire farm, an industry, a state, it can mean significantly more milk and ultimately greater profitability for individual farms and an industry that is seriously in need of revitalization to reclaim our status as a national dairy leader.

Editor’s Note: John Frey is the Pennsylvania Center of Dairy Excellence executive director.

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

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