Jersey cows huddle outside the Joe Bearden Dairy Research Center in Sessums in February. Primarily due to a lower number of dairy cows, the state’s milk production in the first quarter of 2017 was down from the previous year. (Photo by MSU Extension/Kevin Hudson)
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Fewer dairy cows than last year roam Mississippi pastures, so the state's milk production continues to steadily decline.
In the first quarter of 2017, milk production was down 7 percent from that time a year ago. From January to March of 2016, producers collected 42 million pounds of milk compared to 39 million pounds this year.
"This was primarily due to a lower number of dairy cows," said Mississippi State University Extension Service livestock economist Josh Maples. "There are approximately 9,500 dairy cows in Mississippi -- down from 10,000 in the first quarter of 2016."
The value of Mississippi milk production is also falling. Last year, that value was an estimated $25 million, down from $32 million in 2015. As of 2016, the state had 83 dairy herds. There were 85 in 2015.
For those staying in the industry, there is promising news. Producers received $17.97 per hundredweight of milk in April, which is an upswing from $16.34 a year before. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts higher demand and exports will drive the nationwide average price per hundredweight into the $17.55-$18.55 range in 2018, an increase from this year’s $17.35-$17.85 projection.
With dwindling interest from future generations in dairy production, however, fewer people are actually staying. Infrastructure -- including milking equipment companies, industry field specialists, dairy-focused veterinarians and nutritionists -- is also disappearing.
“The biggest long-term challenges dairy producers face right now are not having a next generation to take over the farm and not having infrastructure to support their industry,” said Extension dairy specialist Amanda Stone. “The average dairy producer in the U.S. is about 55 years old. If no one is there to take over the farms in the future, there will be a rapid decline in smaller family dairy farms and an increase in herd size on larger ones that can add more cows to compensate for the lost herds.
“Dairy producers work 365 days a year because cows need to be milked multiple times per day every single day,” she added. “They work hard and often see dairying as a way of life instead of a profession because it really does encompass everything they do.”
Milk prices are still relatively low, Stone added, because nationwide production is up. Expected U.S. milk production this year is 216.9 billion pounds, which would be 4.5 billion more than in 2016. High feed costs and maintaining consumer markets are also challenges in Mississippi.
“Milk cooperatives have a harder time making money from small farms as well as when farms are spaced far apart and trucking costs increase,” she said. “Dairies in Mississippi are small and spread out, making it difficult to maintain a market here and to find milk cooperatives that want to purchase their milk.”
Mississippi dairy producers have the added challenge of oppressive summer heat and humidity -- two factors that cause stress and decrease milk production per cow. The average dairy cow in Mississippi produced 14,769 pounds of milk in 2016. The national average was 22,775 pounds per cow.
“Dairy cows start feeling the effects at a temperature humidity index of 68, which hits this state early in spring and often lasts through late fall,” Stone said. “Cows housed inside are often provided with shade and sprinklers to keep them cool through evaporative cooling. Pastured animals are often cooled with shade, either from trees, portable shade structures or permanent shade structures.”
Last year, that heat came with a dearth of rain in late summer and early fall, leading to a drought and forage issue.
“We are in drought conditions currently, but things are not as bad right now as they were last year,” Stone said. “Last fall, producers weren’t able to get their cows on ryegrass until almost winter. Luckily, we have gotten some rain, so producers are at least able to get out into the fields now.”