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0508 PD: Is the state of dairy picture-perfect?

Published on 20 March 2008

This month I asked seven- and eight-year-olds in Dalhart, Texas, to draw for me how they think dairy cows live today.

More than three-fourths of the crayon-drawn images I received depicted cows roaming in or chewing on pasture with a red barn in the background. I can’t imagine seeing many of these dairies in Texas. My challenge to you is to send me a picture of such a dairy, if you can find one, located in the Lone Star state. Most likely the images that these elementary students recreated were the manifestations of marketing efforts they’ve seen on television or in the grocery store. I’m pretty sure the USDA doesn’t keep track of the number of operating dairies with red barns, but they do keep track of the dairies using some type of pasture. Lactating cows living in that environment make up less than one-third of all cattle living on U.S. operations. That’s according to recent USDA data regarding management systems on U.S. dairies. (To see more information about dairy cattle health and management practices in the U.S., go to pages 26-27.) On large dairies (500+ cows) about 16 percent of the cows rely on pasture during the growing season to provide part of a ration’s forage component.

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In this issue, we’ve tried to analyze the impact the public’s perception of dairies will have on the industry in the future. (See pages 28-34.) I think our industry is headed for one of two scenarios – returning to its American Gothic roots or being all bagged up with nowhere to go. (See pages 32 and 31, respectively, for descriptions of these two scenarios). I believe the impact of technology on our industry will be significant. And I’m optimistic that consumer attitudes and perceptions of the dairy industry can be positive. For me the unknown factor for the future of the industry is pride for dairying as a lifestyle and livelihood. How producers of all sizes answer the question, “How proud am I of dairying?” will determine whether everyone continues to love dairy products or if dairy becomes a product for only the niche-market consumer. Here’s how I see the scenarios breaking down:

• If only a handful of dairy producers – both large and/or small – promote dairy’s positive public perception, I believe the industry goes to the “All Bagged Up and Nowhere to Go” scenario. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) picketing outside the large dairies that will be left after the industry consolidates.

• If smaller dairy producers take interest in promoting their “locally grown” and “family farm” image without waiting for large dairy producers to help, I believe the industry goes American Gothic. The image of milk will turn from white to green as small producers market recyclable glass bottles and zero carbon footprints.

• If large-herd dairy producers put their interest and their pocketbooks behind promoting a positive consumer perception of dairying, I think the industry gets the best scenario possible – a Field of Dreams.

For the best future for the entire industry, larger herd producers will need to take an interest in more than tax write-offs, asset depreciation and income statements. Passion for dairying as an American livelihood, not just another potential profit center, will determine the future.

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The longer we all wait for someone else to make the first move, the more likely we head toward a situation that 10 years from now we wouldn’t call a pretty picture. How proud of dairying will we be then? PD

Walt Cooley
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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