No state in the nation has squeezed more milk out of its dairy cows in the past three years than New Mexico. Producers got nearly 25,000 pounds out of each cow in 2011. What’s the secret?
A combination of favorable weather, modern dairy facilities and aggressive culling appears to be helping producers get the most out of every cow.
Cow comfort is an important consideration whenever new dairies are built, and New Mexico has seen several large new dairies constructed in the past 12 years, says dairyman Luke Woelber of Belen, New Mexico, who is president of Dairy Producers of New Mexico.
“New Mexico is a good place to be a cow,” he says. “The dairymen that I know who are progressive, know that cow comfort is worth it.”
Producers ask some important questions before the concrete is poured, Woelber says. How far will cows have to travel to be milked? How far will they have to go to eat, to access shade and water?
Attention to such details “make our dairies very comfortable for the cow. She has easy access to a lot of things,” he says.
While cows may be pampered on New Mexico dairies, the average duration of their stay has been getting shorter. High beef prices have caused producers to be more aggressive in their cull rates. Any cow that isn’t producing her share of milk is quickly sent to the beef processor.
“I’m probably pushing a 40 percent cull rate right now,” Woelber said early this summer. Normally, his cull rate is around 32 to 33 percent.
With near-record beef prices, producers are “shipping cows that would not normally be leaving their operations,” Woelber says.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have a strong beef price. It makes it a little bit easier realizing that you can get good prices for your meat animals.”
Dairy feedstuffs in New Mexico are similar to those used in other Western states, so feed quality does not explain the increase in per-cow production, Woelber says.
Posilac doesn’t appear to be a factor either. Some of the state’s largest processors no longer accept milk from cows treated with the artificial growth hormone.
“I don’t know of anyone in the state who has used it for the past two or three years,” Woelber says. Yet milk production in the state has continued to grow.
In 2001, New Mexico ranked fifth in milk production per cow behind Washington, Colorado, Idaho and California.
By 2008, the state had moved up to third place in that category, with each cow producing an average of 23,269 pounds of milk, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The following year, it moved to the top of the heap and has remained there ever since. In 2011, milk production per cow in New Mexico averaged 24,854 pounds.
It should be noted that New Mexico ranks ninth in total milk production because it has fewer cows than several other dairy states. California – the nation’s top milk producer – had 1.7 million cows last year, compared to “only” 329,000 in New Mexico.
Dairies in New Mexico tend to be mostly larger, confined drylots. The average herd size is about 2,300 cows – tops in the nation.
Like producers elsewhere across the country, New Mexico dairymen have faced tighter profit margins the past couple of years – the result of higher feed costs and poor milk prices.
“We’ve had to relearn how to feed our cows just because of the economics,” Woelber says. “You have to start looking for other commodities to replace what’s expensive. It’s trial and error.”
The rough times may have a silver lining, says Robert Hagevoort, extension dairy specialist with New Mexico State University.
“I really believe that the bad milk prices and high feed costs have brought out the best in our dairymen,” he says.
“Our producers are getting every bit of milk out of the barn that they can,” Hagevoort says. “These dairies are running as lean and as mean as they can.”
If New Mexico has a natural advantage, it’s probably the weather. The winters are mild. Summer temperatures soar into the triple digits but, with low humidity and some shade, the cows seems to tolerate it.
“Cows really like the Southwestern climate,” Hagevoort says. “Typically we have very low humidity and even when it does get hot, we usually get a nice breeze.”
New Mexico dairymen aren’t feeding their cows anything special, he says.
“It’s all efficiency. It’s not feed quality,” Hagevoort says. “Last year’s drought didn’t help forage quality at all, but milk production was still up.”
With the price of milk below the cost of production, dairymen in New Mexico, as in other parts of the country, are constantly looking for ways to decrease costs and increase production, Hagevoort says.
New Mexico has lost five or six dairies since the first of the year, said Beverly Idsinga, executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico. “That’s a lot since we only had about 150 dairies,” she says.
Idsinga expects New Mexico to continue to be a leader in per-cow production and efficiency – but that may not save producers if feed costs remain high and milk prices low.
She hopes the new farm bill will bring some relief. “Our producers are actually losing money right now,” Idsinga said in June. “Something needs to happen. Efficiency is a moot point if we don’t get a broken system fixed.”
The Dairy Producers of New Mexico board has been supportive of the dairy title in the Farm Bill now before Congress. “Last fall we voted to support the Dairy Security Act as written, with no bias on the size or region of dairies,” Idsinga said.
The bill has undergone some changes in the Senate and the House Agriculture committee since then, but the DPNM board is still generally supportive.
The Dairy Security Act would do away with the Milk Income Loss Contract and Dairy Product Price Support programs, both of which have been biased in favor of smaller dairies, the New Mexico group believes.
The association supports the Dairy Market Price Stabilization program and was glad that an amendment to eliminate it from the DSA was defeated by the House Ag Committee.
“We remain in support of (the DSA) as long as all producers are treated equitably,” Idsinga said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what we have right now.” PD