dairy cows are moving closer together as cows and milk production have shifted north and west, farther away from cities, and are converging into in what University of Wisconsin economist Mark Stephenson calls "cow islands."
"Cow islands are areas where we've seen dairy retreating to or concentrating," explained Stephenson, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability, who is preparing a report on the shifting demographics of the dairy business.
Part of that concentration results from cows moving away from an entire region of the country, Stephenson said. "We've had a major exodus throughout the southeastern quadrant of the U.S. The Southeast has just had a big loss of cattle and dairy farms," he said.
That is because producers are establishing or expanding dairies in areas that are more suited to intensive milk production. The Southeast is hot and humid, Stephenson pointed out, and high-producing cows don't do well in that environment. Instead, cows are moving to where the climate is more temperate, where producers can get better payback from advances in cow genetics and dairy management practices.
"Several regions of the country — California and Idaho, for example — have had pretty spectacular growth, but so, too, have Wisconsin and western New York," Stephenson said.
Owners of large dairy processing facilities are also driving the change.
"Growth has often happened where a few very large dairy plants want to build," Stephenson added. "If you have a company that says, 'I need more cheese,' they might be looking at a location and ask themselves, 'Where can I put a plant where I can get the kind of growth and milk production that I need?'"
Overall, that has meant a gradual, nationwide shift in where the majority of cows are. In each decade since 1960, the cow population has shifted west and a bit north, on average.
Even more noticeably, cows have been moving away from cities. That is especially apparent in California — where cow numbers have dropped dramatically in the in the greater Los Angeles basin — but it is also discernible around El Paso, Texas; Seattle, Wash.; New Orleans, La.; Baltimore, Md., and other cities.
The growth has been in sparsely populated areas, where processing plants are "co-locating" with farms, Stephenson said. "Quite often, the areas where we see big growth are not (very) large. There is intensive growth in a fairly small area, where maybe 30 or 40 farms have gone in where a plant has been established. That's quite often where people aren't."
On the other hand, cow numbers are up significantly in Wisconsin, as they are in other Great Lakes dairy regions. While western New York, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio are adding cows farther away from urban centers, Wisconsin is boosting production in the state's more populated eastern half.
Indeed, the University of Tennessee is leading a six-state effort designed to revive the Southeast's declining dairy industry.
The $3 million, six-state effort is being funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture to discover what can be done to reverse the trend.
Joining the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture will be the University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Kentucky, Mississippi State University and Virginia Tech.
Steve Oliver, assistant dean of the University of Tennessee AgResearch and a professor of animal science, is heading up the project. He said the study will focus on improving herd health and milk quality and quantity by lowering the incidence of mastitis in southeastern herds.
"The southeastern dairy industry is in serious trouble," Oliver said. "Although the nation is experiencing a surge in milk and dairy demand, the Southeast has experienced a greater than 37% decline in total milk production. Milk quality is also consistently the poorest of all the regions of the U.S.," he said.
The reason is the high levels of mastitis experienced throughout the region.
"Improved milk quality and greater production quantities are all about consistent employment of good management practices for the health and well-being of the cow," Oliver said.
Members of the research consortium plan to reach out to challenged and underperforming dairies with a four-pronged approach to enhance regional milk production as well as improve the quality of the milk produced. The effort will include:
1. Identifying economic, social and psychological factors affecting regional farmers' limited adoption of practices known to control mastitis. The researchers plan to develop strategies to counter the rationale for non-adoption.
2. Conducting applied research and on-farm demonstrations focusing on strategies for controlling mastitis and enhancing milk quality. This will involve working directly with producers to assess on-farm practices. Stakeholders will also include veterinary practitioners, university students, extension personnel and other industry representatives serving the dairy community.
3. Training dairy producers and milkers to utilize current and newly developed tools to make on-farm decisions that improve milk quality and production.
4. Developing continuing education programs for those serving the dairy industry now and providing undergraduate and graduate student education for long-term solutions for the region.
"Implementation of cost-effective, science-based mastitis prevention and control strategies can help producers improve quality milk, increase production and, therefore, improve industry profitability and sustainability," Oliver said.
Two University of Maryland alumni, Charlie and Judy Iager, are helping to ensure the revitalization of the university's Campus Farm by making a gift to kick off a $3 million fund-raising effort for its first major renovation in 50 years.
The $6 million project of the university's College of Agriculture & Natural Resources' calls for replacing an asphalt parking area in the center of the farm with a covered livestock pen that allows seating for students and visitors to observe instructors working with animals. A new 18,000 sq. ft. enclosed teaching pavilion will also provide classroom and viewing areas.
Nestled among dormitories, sports arenas and classroom buildings, the property is unique among urban universities along the East Coast and serves as a nod to the University of Maryland's roots as an agricultural college.
Today, the Campus Farm is about 4.3 acres in size, a far cry from the 90-plus acres that included a working dairy operation when the facility was launched in 1937. However, it endures as a hands-on teaching lab for students in the animal science program.
Enrollment in the program has climbed from about 180 in 2002 to 288 today, with students studying everything from applied animal physiology to equine behavior to commercial poultry management.
In a new study published in the Journal of Animal Science, Oregon State researchers show that maximum selenium levels permitted by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration may be too low for sheep to reach optimum growth and health.
Selenium is essential for cellular function in animals and aids development. Large selenium doses can be toxic, but levels that are too low can impair growth and compromise the immune system.
"When sheep don't grow to their potential or have weak immune systems, it can be a sign of insufficient selenium," said Gerd Bobe, an Oregon State professor and co-author of the study. "Our research shows higher levels of selenium can result in healthier animals that grow bigger and that can improve returns at the marketplace for farmers and ranchers."
Normally, grazing animals eat ample amounts of selenium from grass and other plants grown in soils naturally containing the element, yet the soils of the Pacific Northwest are low in selenium, and the region's livestock often need it added to their diets to avoid health problems.
A challenge is that the range between selenium deficiency and selenium toxicity can be narrow; current FDA regulations limit the amount of dietary selenium supplementation for animals grazing on selenium-scarce soils — up to 0.7 mg per sheep per day or 3 mg per beef cattle per day.
In Oregon State's experiments, pregnant ewes were given selenium doses up to five times higher than the FDA-allowed level — a supplemental amount researchers determined is not harmful to sheep. The element is carried into the bodies of offspring, helping young animals during development.
At the highest amount, ewes gave birth to lambs that grew to be 4.3 lb. heavier than average after 60 days. Furthermore, survival was 15% higher in lambs receiving the highest amount of organic selenium supplementation. As farmers look to sell sheep at five to six months of age, weight and health metrics are keys to profitability.