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Dairy farmers see higher prices, along with higher costs

'Decent' milk prices for first time since 2008. Drought and rising feed costs wiping out any dairy gains.

Louisiana dairy farmers say 2011 was beginning to look like the year they would make a little money, but now they are not so sure.

For the first time since 2008, farmers are seeing what they are calling decent milk prices, according to Ronnie Bardwell, LSU AgCenter dairy agent.

But even with the higher prices, dry weather this spring is turning what started out as a really good year into a pretty tough year, Bardwell said.

Troy Ingram, a dairy farmer in Franklinton, estimates that he’s been losing almost $300 a day since the current drought began. For the past two months he and other dairy farmers have been watching the weather forecasts and praying for rain.

Ingram said it’s not nearly as bad as it would if he had higher feed cost. Ingram saves money by hauling his feed and spreading his fertilizer. And he changed the way he bales hay.

Ingram, who runs a 300-acre operation with Holstein cows realized several years ago that using square hay bales wastes less and stores better. 

When the ground is dry, the grass won’t grow, and if the grass is not there, the cows are not producing as much milk, which means trouble for the farmer, Bardwell said. “When you look at it, Troy is putting 20 pounds less milk per cow in the tank since the drought began. If you figure that milk at about 20 cents per pound, then he is losing almost $9,000 per month on the 69 cows he’s milking.”

These numbers make it hard to stay in the business when the price of feed continues to outpace the price the farmers are making on their milk. 

Phillip Verberne III, a Kentwood dairy farmer, pays $2,200 for six tons of feed. The same amount of feed was $900 ten years ago.

“If milk would go up to about 30 cents per pound, we may be able to get some young people interested because they could make a little money” Verberne said.

As it currently stands, the size of the dairy industry in Louisiana is decreasing every year.

“In 1997, when I came to Tangipahoa Parish we had around 300 dairies in the parish,” said Bubba Huckaby, Kentwood Co-op general manager. “Now there are less than 150 dairies in the state.”

Brenda Bankston, owner of Bankston Udderwise Dairy, which has been in operation since 1929, has seen many years like this. “We just say ‘it’s going to get better next year,’ but it really doesn’t.”

Dairy farmers just stay at it because it’s a good life, but a hard life, she said.

According to the LSU AgCenter’s Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the total economic contribution from dairying in Louisiana, including milk sales, animal sales and additional processing, was $126.2 million in 2010. That’s up from $113.6 million in 2009.     

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