Statistics show that more than two-thirds of the dairies in the Southeast have closed since 1995. The question is “Why?” A further question is how to reverse the decline.
A new, $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. The University of Tennessee (UT) Institute of Agriculture will serve as the study's lead institution, but regional participants include the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, Mississippi State University and Virginia Tech.
Steve Oliver, assistant dean of UT 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, an inflammation of the cows' udders, 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 therefore production. Methods are expected to include printed publications, face-to-face meetings and electronic teaching tools (including DAIReXNET webinars) in both English and Spanish.
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. For example, directed internships will provide real-world experiences for students and result in a more knowledgeable work force to promote the sustainability of the region's dairy industry.
The effort should buoy hope for the battered Southeastern dairy industry by motivating producers to change management practices and improve animal health and well-being.
“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,” said Oliver.
A scientist in each participating state will head up that state's research and outreach efforts, and the entire effort is expected to be funded for five years. Success will be measured by increased production and higher milk quality from participating states.