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How to get started with a healthy dairy

Around 35% of milk now comes from larger farms of more than 2,500 cows, with around 45% coming from small farms with less than 1,000 cows.

Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are staples of the American diet. According to the International Dairy Food Association, the U.S Dairy Industry has an annual economic impact of more than $628 billion. California and Wisconsin are the two largest dairy states, accounting for nearly one-third of dairy sales.

Like the rest of U.S. agriculture, consolidation into larger operations has decreased the number of dairy farms by 20% from 2012 to 2017. Around 35% of milk now comes from larger farms of more than 2,500 cows, with around 45% coming from small farms with less than 1,000 cows.

Farms with less than 100 cows produce 13% of America’s milk, down from 17% just a few years ago.

READ MORE: Starbucks plans to hold the milk

Current Dairy Industry

At a 2019 Wisconsin dairy show, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told those engaged in dairy farming to read the handwriting on the wall and face the economies of scale that have happened in America saying, “The big get bigger and the small go out.”

Purdue’s comments did not set with dairy farmers, or with House and Senate Ag Committee members, who sited small farms’ contribution to their communities and local economies as justification for support, fiscal and moral.

USDA programs and policy are generally designed to support all operations regardless of size.

The USDA paid nearly $300 million to dairy farmers in 2019. Payments are triggered when the gap narrows between feed costs and the farm-gate sales price of milk.

Groups like the National Farmers Union would like to see programs better target family-size farms to counteract those forces.

There are those still hopeful about the fate of dairy. States like South Dakota are working to increase their presence in the U.S. Dairy Industry. The number of dairy science students at South Dakota State University is on the rise, as dairy cow numbers in the state are increasing following a decline in the early 2000s.

The dairy processing industry has increased in South Dakota, as well. Agropur produces mozzarella cheese for Papa Murphy’s pizza. A new plant is expected to have a $1 billion impact on the state. Valley Queen Cheese Factory Inc. is expecting a 25% increase in production.

Industry leaders are counting on growing demand worldwide to keep driving growth.

READ MORE: Technology advancements, a new hope and bankruptcies: what happend with dairy farmers in 2019

Healthy Dairy Practices

Running a profitable dairy involves more than crunching the numbers. Operational efficiency and animal care are also key components.

Consistent feed supply, clean water, properly managed silage bunkers, and adequate footbaths keep cows and calves satisfied, healthy and productive. High-quality colostrum at birth gets calves off to a good start.

Forage quality and overall feed quality can make a big difference in milk production.

It’s not just about quantity, it’s about meeting nutritional needs by providing cows with forages like silage and hay with high feed value. Other forages, such as cover crops, can be used for dry cows or heifers, saving the higher nutrient options for lactating cows.

With corn silage, quality begins with hybrid selection, but it is also affected by growing conditions, harvest and storage. Quality hay forage relies on proper pasture management.

All feedstuffs should be tested at harvest, and then properly stored. Silage should be tightly packed in the bunker, and wrapped with an oxygen barrier that creates an anaerobic environment to encourage fermentation.

Proper storage also reduces waste.

Likewise, the quality of baled hay will last longer if wrapped.

Producers need to know the warning signs of potential problems like high nitrate content or a diet high in starch and low in fiber that can cause Acidosis.

Testing of suspect feedstuffs is crucial in identifying these problems.

Costs of Dairy Farming

Getting started in the dairy business is an expensive proposition. Every operation is different, of course, as is the size.

Assuming an operation of 100-150 cows, Successful Farming estimates start-up costs.

The first requirement is a 20,000-square-foot barn, which will cost about $400,000.

Then there’s milking equipment, which will cost approximately $500,000 for a non-robotic double-10 parallel milking parlor that milks 20 cows at a time, and all of the tanks, filters, hoses, refrigeration, and other necessary equipment.

READ MORE: 5 simple dairy practices that pay

Land is needed to raise feedstuffs. Plan on .5 acre per cow of corn silage, plus about 1 acre per cow of hay. Additional land is required for barns, holding pens, and manure management – about .5 acres per cow. That’s around 250 acres. At current Midwest land prices, that’s about $750,000.

The cost of growing 62.5 acres of corn and 125 acres of hay is about $25,000. Harvest equipment will run around $700,000.

Next, you must purchase the herd. At around $2,000 per cow, that’s another $250,000.

All totaled, you can expect to spend around $2.6 million to start a 150 cow dairy.

Robotic Milking

The modern dairy industry depends on automation and technology. Some dairies are making the switch to milking robots, freeing up labor and increasing animal comfort along with increasing productivity.

But the cost of installing a robotic system can be prohibitive. Prices per robot can range from $150,000 to $200,000, plus installation and start-up support.

The folks at Takes Dairy and Dan and Debbie’s Creamer near Ely, Iowa, found a unique way to bridge that fiscal gap. They entered Lely’s The Way to Dairy contest.

The company was looking for progressive dairy operations wanting to maximize each cow’s potential while focusing on sustainability and innovation.

Through the contest they won a Lely Astronaut A5 milking system and a Vector feeding system.

Lely company reps say the system makes a difference, with more than 80% of cows voluntarily using the robot within 3 weeks.

Robotic milking systems are common in Europe, with 35% of new installations in herds of more than 500 cows.

The systems reduce labor needs, and the cows stay calmer during milking resulting in increased production.

Smart technology also provides tools for tracking activity and health.

Dairy Innovation

New advancements in genetic selection are making it easier for dairy producers to improve their herds. Clarifide Plus from Zoetis provides genetic predictions for cow diseases and calf wellness traits in the Jersey breed.

Zoetis also provides a Wellness Trait Index, Calf Wellness Index, and Dairy Wellness Profit Index.

The 2019 World Dairy Expo highlighted the latest in dairy technology.

Nedap Augmented Reality uses Microsoft Hololens mixed-reality goggles to display information on a cow, like heat and health information or pregnancy status, above the user’s field of vision.

The DeLaval teat spray robot TSR automates pre- and post-teat spray application.

McLanahan Modular SMS12 System Sand manure separation equipment removes sand and bedding from manure.

IMV Imaging wireless ultrasound scanners are specifically designed for bovine veterinarians checking for late pregnancies. The IMV Cloud gives producers instant access to vital data, recorded for future use.

HybriForce-4400 is a next generation hybrid Alfalfa that delivers a 5-12% yield advantage over other varieties.

Industry Changing Lawsuits

Opponents of production agriculture have begun taking their case to the courts, and dairy is no exception. Other legal cases stem from disagreement within the industry.

A collection of 115 Northeastern dairy farmers filed suit against Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) alleging anti-competitive conduct by the nation’s largest dairy cooperative. The lawsuit alleges DFA and its marketing arm, Dairy Marketing Services (DMS), violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by conspiring to monopolize the fluid milk market.

DFA received 60% of its net income from processing in 2016. Processing income is not shared with farmer-members. At the same time it took steps to reduce the amount paid to farmer-members for milk to keep processing costs down.

In Wisconsin, the question at hand is how to regulate CAFOs.

Some counties have enacted moratoriums on new construction until issues around the economic and environmental impact can be assessed, defining how local residents shape the future of their communities and how farmers can continue to increase operational efficiencies.

On the statewide level, the Republican-controlled state senate declined to approve the governor’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, a candidate known for favoring regulation of large-scale livestock farms.

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