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From the front lines: Does your state know exactly how many dairies it has left?

Melissa A. Bravo for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2018

I live near Bradford County in Pennsylvania. In 2012, Bradford County ranked ninth in the state and 144th in the nation for milk production. In 2014, Bradford was among the 44 counties nationally that produced 50 percent of the nation’s milk, as reported by the Kansas City Market Administrator’s office.

Dairy matters here. Or at least it used to.

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I can’t officially quote how those numbers have changed in 2018 because Pennsylvania does a great job tracking active gas wells by county but not as well at counting dairy farms in operation. I can only tell you with absolute certainty there are now more productive gas wells in Bradford County than dairy operations, maybe even more wells than dairy cows.

So how has the dairy crisis impacted the rest of the state?

The Pennsylvania Milk Market Board (PMMB) held two public hearings this spring, called for by the Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture, in response to the growing dairy crisis. Many were asking if the secretary had the power to help staunch the bleeding of dairy farms exiting the business and if anyone has a current casualty list.

That hearing left me with the uncomfortable feeling Pennsylvania, and perhaps other states, are not cognitive of the number of victims and survivors of this crisis. After listening to the testimonies and the same set of statistics being quoted over and over again, I left the hearings with the take-away message Pennsylvania’s historical and current data capture is inadequate to quantify the casualties at this stage of the current crisis.

After all, we are talking about a market that generates a multi-billion-dollar paycheck for Pennsylvania. That market is in trouble, and we all know, “Dairy is worth more to the state of Pennsylvania than oranges are to Florida and potatoes are to Idaho,” as stated by John Frey, the former executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence.

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To get a handle on the damage inflicted upon Pennsylvania’s dairy production by this year’s low milk prices, I reviewed several publicly available reports with data available over the same time period. I compared PMMB’s annual fiscal reports, National Annual Statistical Summary (NASS) annual reports on dairy and Federal Milk Market Order (FMMO) administrator reports for orders 01, 05 and 33, all from the same time period from 2013 to 2017.

Ask yourself while reading down through this next part: If dairy matters to your state or your county or your legislative district, is Pennsylvania doing a better, same or worse job tracking dairy production and the number of farms in operation during this national crisis?

2013 PA national ranking

According to the PMMB’s 2013 fiscal report, milk cows in Pennsylvania produced 5.1 percent of the nation’s milk supply in 2013. Pennsylvania ranked fifth in milk production in the nation and produced 10.57 billion pounds of milk.

The USDA’s NASS reported 10.565 billion pounds in its annual report for 2013 for Pennsylvania, and the monthly Market Administrator reports for FMMO1, FMMO5 and FMMO33 for Pennsylvania only tally to 8.751 billion pounds of milk for 2013.

Three reports in billions – three slightly different numbers, in billions. No wonder I heard so many different statistics being touted at the special hearings on the dairy crisis here. Maybe it will make more sense if I look at a few more years, I thought.

The 2014 and 2015 NASS numbers show Pennsylvania produced 10.664 billion pounds of milk in 2014 and 10.805 billion pounds in 2015. The three federal orders come in at 8.88 billion pounds in 2014 and 9.05 billion pounds in 2015.

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The PMMB report for 2014 and 2015 states Pennsylvania produced “approximately 20.7 billion pounds of milk” over those two years. Further into the same report PMMB defines this as “10.7 billion pounds in 2014 and a little over 10.8 billion pounds” was produced in 2015 (which by my calculation does not equal 20.7 billion pounds.)

It’s beginning to become clearer to me that rounding in billions is an acceptable accounting practice for milk production.

For 2016, PMMB reported Pennsylvania fell to 6th place despite having increased production to 10.823 billion pounds. The NASS report for 2016 has Pennsylvania production at 10.820 billion. The three federal orders in 2016 totaled 9.159 billion pounds.

As of the end of July, the 2017 annual report had not been released but, according to NASS, Pennsylvania fell to seventh place nationally for milk production at 10.938 billion pounds. However, the federal orders for 2017 tally to 9.308 billion pounds.

So I am just going to call it: Pennsylvania with her 67 counties, three federal milk market order areas, six state milk market orders and untallied raw milk has a weird way of totaling up its milk production.

So what is up with these numbers? Is now a good time to mention a good portion of Pennsylvania milk production is not captured by any of the three FMMOs? These producers fall into what is known as the “unpooled producer category.”

I know now I can’t assume NASS is capturing both PMMB and FMMO numbers in their annual statistical summaries – because I called and asked. I found out they rely solely on a complex statistical process that includes volunteer survey data from a subsample of the dairy population and historical data.

It’s August of 2018, so where does Pennsylvania stand now in milk production?

I thought maybe if I focused just on farm numbers, I could get a better idea. So exactly how many farms are left? Does Pennsylvania know how many licensed dairy operations it has in operation from one month to the next?

I assumed the state does, right? But when I called in June of this year, to my surprise I learned no one had asked the Bureau of Food Safety to tabulate those numbers for the special hearings held in the spring.

Contrast this with another prominent dairy state, Wisconsin, who gave without fanfare their most recent tabulation of licensed producers as well as the number of producers who have stopped milking. In fact, most media publications cite Wisconsin’s numbers as the barometer of how this crisis is unfolding in real time. This got me wondering. How many of you have called your state officials and asked point blank if they know how many producers are left in your state?

Here’s what I did and did not find out about Pennsylvania dairy farm numbers.

2013 PA farm numbers

National farm numbers decreased by 4.7 percent in 2012-2013 but, according to the PMMB, Pennsylvania dairy farms increased from 7,140 to 7,200 farms. Note, however, this report’s footnote said “estimated number of farms.”

The three federal orders accounted for 6,200 PA producers in 2014. PMMB reported PA still ranked 2nd for number of farms nationally but they did not give an updated number. PMMB reported an ‘estimated’ 6,770 licensed dairy farms remained in 2015. The FMMO numbers dropped to 6,111 producers.

The same lack of certainty in the PMMB farm numbers repeats in 2016 and to date we do not have a number for 2017, but the combined FMMOs accounted for 6,018 farms in 2016 and account for only 5,793 producers last year.

So I still am not sure I have a handle on just how many farms we have lost in Pennsylvania since January. To be honest though, they are dropping out faster than I can update any article for print.

But there is one other published statistic I can look at to see how bad the casualty list is. Every magazine, newspaper and university economist is talking about number of milk cows per state. As you read down through Pennsylvania’s cow number reports, ask yourself this question: In this crisis, is your state’s milk production, dairies in operation or milk cows in production reporting accurate or is it just guesswork?

2013 PA milking herd

The PMMB used year 2010 cow numbers in their 2013 report stating milk cow numbers grew to 540,000 head. But cow numbers reported by NASS for the same time period were much fewer, at 532,000 in the December 31, 2012 census of ag report; but reported at 535,000 on January 1, 2013 and 530,000 on January 1, 2014. PMMB did not provide any cow numbers in its 2014-2016 fiscal report. Why, I do not know.

Cow numbers have not been updated since this report. Is it really plausible that, in 2018, milking cow numbers in Pennsylvania have not fluctuated when they have in other states?

Perhaps now is a good time to share that, as far as Pennsylvania goes, the number of cows in production are not counted. According to NASS, and confirmed by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture officials, cow numbers for Pennsylvania are only estimates using brucellosis testing information provided by veterinarians. The question I have for all states is this: Is that really helpful in this crisis?

Are we all making assumptions on milk production, active dairy farms and cows in production? Are we comparing apples to apples or oranges to potatoes? They are both easily peeled but, after that, the similarities end.  end mark

Melissa Bravo has a master of science in agronomy and is a crop and livestock consultant in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.

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