Dairy declines

It is hard to imagine, but at one time Missouri was home to close to 1 million dairy cattle.

That time was near the end of World War II — and ever since the industry has been declining. By the mid-1970s, dairy cattle numbers dropped to 300,000 head.

Then in early 2000, that number was cut in half. By the beginning of this year, the state was left with just 93,000 dairy cows.

Missouri Dairy Association President Larry Purdom says that extreme market volatility contributed to the loss of dairy farmers and cow numbers across the state.

Key Points

• Number of Missouri dairy farms and cows continues to decline.

• The Missouri Dairy Association is calling for federal support.

• Managing volatility may be a homegrown effort.

“The impact on our state has been devastating in the loss of jobs on the farm, with needed service providers and with our dairy processing plants,” he says. “We only produce about half of the milk today that is needed by our state for all uses: fluid milk, cheese, yogurt and butter.”

Federal support

Purdom says that there needs to be some support in the next farm bill for dairy producers. “It’s time to reform dairy policy,” he says. He points to swings in milk prices and feed costs, and the perpetual roller-coaster ride of volatility.

The two programs that currently make up the federal dairy safety net are not focused on the needs of the industry, Purdom believes. He says those programs are linked to milk prices. He would like to see the proposed Dairy Security Act, or DSA, put into in the next farm bill.

He says the DSA provides producers with the ability to insure against “catastrophically low margins, such as in 2009 and today,” by looking at the margins between milk prices and feed costs.

While Purdom searches for federal programs that help keep the dairy industry in the state, some producers are looking at production methods to keep themselves in business.

Farmer ingenuity

Peter Gaul does not like seeing his profits eaten away, literally. So, he is optimizing feed and production through a seasonal, forage-based dairy system.

“My aim is high profit through moderate production and low input cost,” says the New Zealand native.

Gaul milks close to 1,000 cows at his Scott County dairy. His cows produce just under 15,000 pounds per cow annually. “I don’t want to be that high-producing herd,” he says.

“With higher production come greater costs.” Rather, he grazes his cattle rotationally on roughly 1,000 acres of irrigated sandy soils. He manages calving to coincide with spring growth. “The cheapest feed to serve is in the spring.”

Already in its third year of production, Tribute Farms is in the process of analyzing data to see how this large-scale forage system may spur dairy producers to return to the state.

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DARING DECISION: Peter Gaul decided to put his seasonal dairy to the test on the sandy soils of southeast Missouri. He says this type of system could bring more dairies back to the state.

This article published in the June, 2012 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.