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The View from Here: Sustainability of the milk industry

Mike Gangwer Published on 11 June 2014

The milk industry is dynamic. Yet in the popular press, one can find a plethora of articles written from the perspective that parts of the industry are not sustainable. I read this Modern Farmer article recently.

Much of what we are reading is written with the perspective of a point of view so readers will agree. That is, an article making the case for smaller herds dispersed across the countryside with grazing cows in a green pasture and blue skies appears to be the way dairy farms ought to be.

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Conversely, the large carousel parlor with rows of freestalls and cows in barns with a large waste storage facility are labeled as factory farms … and many non-farm people have been and are convinced this is not the way dairy farms ought to be.

I moved to New York four months ago in the heart of an old established dairy industry, and the typical operation here is 40 to 60 cows in a stanchion barn with a barn cleaner and feed fed with a pitchfork and a grain scoop. My grandfather milked in such a barn when I was a little kid, well over 50 years ago.

But in Michigan, my previous USDA duty station, we regularly visited herds exceeding 1,000 cows and sometimes several thousand cows with a modern carousel and a very modern manure-handling program.

I am convinced that we need this wide range of antiquity and modernity in our business. And I am convinced the families that operate the 60-cow herd in a 60-year-old facility are just as dedicated to the dairy industry as a dairy family operating a 600-cow herd on a six-year-old facility or a 6,000-cow herd on a six-month-old facility.

If we really think about this, we know that any industry is better for having a range of size and scale. What counts is that there is room for all sizes to have a go at making a profit, a return on investment and a quality of life essential for our farm families.

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We ask the question: What are youngsters thinking about when considering a return to the farm? We all know that a 50-cow dairy herd in an older facility requires a lot of work – hand work, lifting work – yet the cows all may have names, all get some individual attention and may in fact graze out in the perennial grass pasture for six to eight months out of the year.

This kind of bucolic lifestyle is appealing to many young people. I am working with one of them now – a young family with 50 cows in a 60-year-old or 70-year-old stanchion barn. The work is divided up between husband and wife.

He feeds and hauls manure daily, and she milks every day in the week. They are raising four young children on this farm. He buys old equipment and repairs it. He does most of the vet work and uses a breeding wheel.

I am often thinking about what the oldest son may be thinking about: Can I make a go of it here too in the next 12 to 15 years? And is a college degree necessary?

Now I can imagine many of my Cal Poly buddies that went back home and managed huge dairy herds. We graduated in the mid-1970s, and now the children are either home on the farm or someone my age is still managing the operation.

The point is: Many college graduates will come back to the dairy farm if it is expanded or modernized or both – or perhaps not. Some may seek a different way of dairy farming, more along the lines of what the Modern Farm (link above) article shows us.

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The fact that we have this huge range is valuable because the wide range of dairy product consumption is met. Yes, the market drives a lot of this range. One can look at organic milk production to know that this portion of the dairy industry is not yet topped out.

I suggest that the dairy farm family with 1,000 cows cares just as much for their cows as the one with 50 cows. This makes sense because we know if you “take care of your cows they will take care of you.” I believe we border on nonsense to think any differently.

Are there dairy herds that have substandard care? Probably, but they are not in the dairy business very long. The whole issue of factory farms being places where cows do not have or get good care is nonsense.

I do not know a dairyman anywhere who purposely seeks to lower the amount of time a cow stays in the herd. On the contrary, cow longevity is highly desirable, and this means cow comfort and care pay the bills.

What we also know is that used equipment from a larger dairy herd can be sold to a dairyman with a smaller herd. The large one expands, and the older equipment is now an expansion for the smaller herd size.

We know that the entire service infrastructure is robust because we have large herds, and the trickle-down effect helps the smaller herd owner. The feed salesman was recently on a dairy farm while I was there too. He told me that the bulk of his business was found in western New York, where there are much larger herds.

His business helps support the small herd owners in Delaware County but only because the large herds justify a fixed feed mill and the importation of feed commodities from other states. This makes good sense to me.

One aspect of this discussion is just how much publicity do we draw to a farm, especially the several-hundred-cow to several-thousand-cow dairy herds? Yes, I know that many dairy farm families hold farm days or public events on their farms.

In fact, here in eastern New York, there are several summer events that show the handiwork of small-herd dairy farm families … and there are a number of events on large herds too. Yes, just a fraction of the public attends these, but millions of people read the popular press.

Ideas are formed by what we read and what we see as we drive by a dairy farm. Few outside of production agriculture understand what goes on in the barn or in that corral.

I am not convinced that our dairy farms should be built out of glass so everything is visible. But I do think that dairy organizations do and have worked tirelessly to tell an accurate story that the dairy industry has room for the 50-cow herd and the 5,000-cow herd … and all sizes in between.

I do think, though, we can do a better job on especially the larger herds. There is a positive story to tell on these farms too, even if the cow herd is CAFO-sized and falls under regulation.

Those of us working on dairy farms in the service sector including the land-grant university extension service, the USDA (including my agency), the NRCS and many others should be looking at our farms objectively and positively. If we can help the overall appearance and perception of the dairy industry, especially the herd itself, then we can raise the level of understanding.

I commented to a colleague recently that what we need is an hour-long program done every week on public television that presents a balanced approach at explaining the dairy industry, and really, all of production agriculture. I suggest the public is ready for such a program.

We have a story to tell, and its importance is manifest every time dairy products are consumed anywhere. Or may I comment this way … the Modern Farm article is a disappointment because it plays to a particular reader without presenting the balance that is necessary.

So we all have some work to do. Maybe I am looking for a television producer … PD

mike gangwer

Mike Gangwer
Agricultural Scientist
USDA-NRCS

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