High input costs and low milk prices have made it hard to be a dairy farmer anywhere in the U.S., but Mississippi producers have it harder than most.
Amanda Stone, dairy specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the number of dairy farms in the state continues to dwindle.
“Today, Mississippi has 55 dairy farms with an average herd size of 145, for a total of about 8,000 dairy cows in the state,” Stone said. “That number has declined drastically in recent years. Just six years ago, there were 87 dairies in the state.”
Heat is an enemy of milk production, and Mississippi’s long, hot summers make dairies difficult to maintain. (Kevin Hudson/MSU Extension Service)
Aside from problems associated with the high cost of maintaining a dairy herd and low market prices for milk, another issue is the aging population of dairy farmers.
“Children of dairy farmers are not always ready or willing to take over the farm, likely in part to them seeing how hard a life it is,” she said. “Many of our dairies simply go out of business upon the retirement of the dairy farmer.”
Another significant problem in the industry is receiving a lot more attention in recent years than ever before.
“Mental health struggles and suicide are big issues in the dairy industry as a result of its tumultuous state over the last several years,” Stone said.
Long, hot summers
Heat is an enemy of milk production, and Mississippi’s long, hot summers make dairies difficult to maintain. A lot of work goes into keeping dairy cows comfortable so they continue to produce milk despite the heat.
Mississippi does have some advantages: a long growing season for forage, excellent access to water and good grazing land for cattle. Not all parts of the country have these features.
Mississippi’s dairy industry produces a state average 6.2 gallons of milk per cow per day. That amount puts the state No. 42 nationally, a low ranking that has not changed much over the years, despite per-cow production rising.
“Milk production per cow continues to increase everywhere as genetics, nutrition and management improve,” Stone said.
Josh Maples, Extension agricultural economist, said that at the national level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects the 2022 all-milk price will average $25.75 per hundredweight, up from the 2021 average of $18.53.
“Even with stronger milk prices, higher input costs are a major headwind to dairy producers in Mississippi,” Maples said. “For example, MSU agricultural economists estimate that forage production will be approximately 50% more expensive in 2022 than 2021.
“So, while producers may earn higher milk prices than in recent years, it is much more costly to produce milk,” he said.
MSU scientists continue to support the dairy industry with research into pressing topics.
Stone and MSU graduate student Kevin Braman are working to understand how sprinkler systems affect milk production and behavior in a pasture-based herd. Past research from Stone’s lab has shown positive results with the pasture-based sprinkler system.
Another project Stone is conducting with graduate student Michelle Fenstermaker is an effort to better understand how the mental health of dairy farmers, such as their anxiety, depression and compassion fatigue, affects their ability to perceive pain in their animals.
“The results of this research and follow-up papers and workshops will highlight ways for dairy producers to improve their mental health, which, in turn, can improve their animals’ welfare,” Stone said.