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1409 PD: Survey says: Pennsylvania dairymen look to invest

Karen Lee Published on 21 September 2009

Earlier this year the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE) conducted a survey of dairy producers throughout the state with hopes that the information gleaned will help Pennsylvania dairy stakeholder groups provide support, direction and resources to a rapidly changing industry.

“I believe this information will be especially useful to the Pennsylvania Dairy Task Force and the respective committees as they work to create initiatives that result in a growing and vibrant dairy industry and to us here at the CDE as we work to carry out these initiatives,” says John Frey, CDE’s executive director.

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The survey looked to find the demographics of the state’s dairy industry, current milking and housing facilities, current operational practices used, plans for retirement, plans for modernization and investment in facilities, use of professional resources and limitations to growth, profitability and business transition.

The CDE sent out 7,000 surveys to dairies with more than 25 cows in December, and by early April it had collected 1,640 responses.

The respondents represent 22 percent of the farms in Pennsylvania, almost 27 percent of the cows and about 24 percent of the annual milk production. More than half of the respondents farm in the southeast corner of the state.

Last year, herds with less than 80 cows produced 34 percent of the state’s milk. Herds 80 to 150 cows had 28.8 percent, 151-300 cows at 15 percent and 300-plus herds had 22.2 percent.

Almost 66 percent of farms in the state had less than 80 cows. Twenty-five percent of farms had 80 to 150 cows, less than 7 percent had 151 to 300 cows and only 2.6 percent had more than 300 cows.

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Cows in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania average 70 pounds per day while those in the northeast are at 60 pounds per day. The central and western regions are at 67 and 64, respectively.

In terms of milk quality, 29 percent of dairies have somatic cell counts less than 200,000. Almost 53 percent are in the 200,000 to 350,000 range, while 16.5 percent are from 350,000 to 500,000. Just 1.6 percent of dairies have scores greater than 500,000.

According to Figure 1*, Pennsylvania herds will grow in size in the next five years. There will be more 80 to-150-cow, 151 to-300-cow and 300-plus-cow herds in 2013 than there are today and fewer herds with less than 80 cows.

Farms looking to implement intensively managed rotational grazing in the next five years reside in the northeast, central and western regions of the state. Three to five percent of the dairies in those regions say they intend to start grazing by 2013, adding to the roughly 20 percent in each area that already graze their cattle.

Seventeen percent of operations in Pennsylvania plan to discontinue milking in the next five years. The top four reasons are retirement, no one to take over, 30 percent; economics, can’t make it financially, 23.6 percent; shift to beef, cash crops or other agriculture, 17.5 percent; and health issues, 11.8 percent.

Those primary operators planning to retire in the next five years have an average age of 58. Sixty percent of those planning to retire operate tie stall or stanchion facilities.

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From these survey results, the state can plan on an 11.6 percent drop in milk production based on the reported intentions to retire in the next five years.

More than half of the respondents say they have no desire to expand. Those that would like to grow the size of their operation list land availability, family or other personal considerations, excess debt and inadequate or unavailable labor as limiting factors.

Of the producers continuing to milk cows in the next five years, 42 percent are confident they can meet their profitability goals at their current herd size. In order to meet their profitability goals, 20 percent see a need to increase herd size, 18.8 percent will likely need to modernize facilities and 5.2 percent will need to change their style of dairying (e.g., grazing or freestall).

Fourteen percent are not confident that profitability can be met regardless of any type of action.

Pennsylvania dairymen are looking to improve their management in the next five years. They indicated the most improvement would be in milking herd health, genetics, calf and heifer health and feed.

When asked what were the most important factors needed for their dairy operation, producers responded with land availability, milk hauling, labor availability and facility upgrades. Least-important factors were computerized systems, outside advisers and loan availability. (See Figure 2*.)

Maximizing milk price, decreasing cost of production and stabilizing milk price volatility are the most important factors dairymen need to improve their business performance in the next five years. Increasing herd size ranked the least important. Average rankings included: Increasing milk components and improving udder health.

Figure 3* shows the investments producers intend to make in the next five years. Cow comfort, housing for heifers and dry cows and feed- handling systems will see the most improvements by 2013. Most of those investments will be made by producers in the southeast portion of the state.

In terms of dollar value, producers are looking to spend the most on milk cow housing, followed by milking systems. (See Figure 4*).  PD

Editor’s note: This survey was done in early 2009 when many did not anticipate the low prices to linger as long as they have. A survey completed today could potentially yield different results.

*Figures omitted but are available upon request to

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