Farm Horizons, April 2014

The future of farming: professor predicts what’s ahead for dairy producers

By Starrla Cray

What will the dairy industry look like 10 years from now?

University of Illinois professor emeritus Mike Hutjens shared his perspective at the 2014 Carver County Dairy Expo in Norwood Young America, with a presentation titled “Future of the Dairy Industry; Look Back to Look Ahead.”

“Forty years ago, farms were very diversified – we had pigs, we had chickens, and we raised sugar beets,” Hutjens said. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, dairy farming was seen as a way of life.”

Dairy farm labor was mainly family-based years ago, whereas today, many farms employ outside workers. These modern farm families often have a more “urban” lifestyle, with vacations and flexibility, Hutjens said.

Of the consumer food dollar, the majority (42.5 cents) is spent on energy, transportation, and marketing. About 38.5 cents goes toward labor, and the remaining 19 cents goes back into the farm.

The size of dairy farms is changing, and Minnesota has many farms with 200 or more milk cows. (Filling a semi-load of milk takes about 600 cows.)

Small dairy farms have also found niches, sometimes in organic milk production.

“About 4.2 percent of the milk is organic,” Hutjens said.

For organic milk, the consumer price (as of January 2013 data) was $6.50 per gallon. Milk labeled rBST Free was $6 per gallon, while “regular” milk was $3.50 per gallon.

Hutjens referred to regular milk as “green” milk, because it uses all approved technologies available to dairy farmers, and “has the smallest carbon footprint.”

About half of milk’s “carbon footprint” stems from milk production, according to Hutjens. Twenty percent is due to feed production, 17 from transportation/processing, 6 percent from retail, and 5 percent from consumption/disposal.

Hutjens spoke about environmental regulations around the world, stating that the European Union has suggested implementing carbon emission labeling for products, and New Zealand has an animal tax to conduct research on reducing greenhouse gases.

In the US, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated he has a goal of helping the dairy industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.

In June 2013, Vilsack stated that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the Obama Administration, has invested nearly $120 million in coordinated agriculture project research “to sustain our productivity in the face of modern environmental challenges.” The USDA also gave $19.5 million to the University of Wisconsin and Oklahoma State University to look at the impacts of climate variability on dairy and beef production.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a livestock tax of $175 per dairy cow (over 25 cows), $87.50 per beef cow (over 50 cows), and $20 per hog (over 200 pigs).

“There are some years when you don’t make more than that number,” Hutjens said, adding that the measure did not pass.

Since 1990, animal agriculture greenhouse gases have increased 3.5 percent, according to Hutjens. In that same time frame, US milk production went up 20 percent, meat production rose by 50 percent, and egg production increased by 30 percent.

Today, milk production is more efficient, and doesn’t require as many cows, Hutjens noted. Per pound of milk, less than half of the greenhouse gases are produced compared to 70 years ago.

“If you want to produce the same amount of milk organically, it will take 30 percent more cows and resources,” he said.

To further reduce carbon emissions, Hutjens said farmers should aim to increase milk yield per cow, use rBST, use Rumensin, optimize rumen fermentation, use feed additives, and increase forage quality.

Hutjens predicts that animal and environmental care will be greatly impacted by the consumer, the dairy industry, and activist groups in the upcoming years.

Fifteen years ago, 34 percent of milk was produced on farms with more than 500 cows. By 2020, Hutjens predicts that these large farms will produce 85 percent of the milk supply.

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