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The MO Dairy Decline Part Two-Small Dairy Solutions

Since 1975, Missouri has lost over two-thirds of its total herd of dairy cows. As many dairy operations in Missouri are struggling to stay profitable, experts say the solution for farmers is to look beyond borders and employ new strategies to manage a healthy herd. In the second of a two part series on the decline of dairy farming in Missouri, KSMU's Benjamin Fry looks at cost-effective methods to help the small dairy farmer survive.

Thirty years ago, it wasn't hard to spot a small dairy farm in Missouri's rural landscape.

Today, that picture is a little different.

Ron Boyer with the Missouri Dairy Growth Council says as dairy farms are consolidating to stay profitable, the state is also losing bovines.

"Many of our cows have been shipped out to farms in other states. There are a number of reasons why some states have increased and others have declined in the number of cows"

Boyer says states such as New Mexico, Texas, and Western Kansas are hitting their stride in milking.

But that doesn't necessarily mean Missouri's small farms can't once again be competitive in the industry.

The Missouri Dairy Growth Council has several strategies in bringing small milk farms back.

Boyer says the council is working to get the word out on the state's relatively low land prices to those in the east.

"A Pennsylvania farmer can sell their farm and land and come to Missouri and establish a dairy farm, buy the cows and have money left over, so that's pretty enticing"

For many small dairy farmers, the cost of feeding a herd is one of the biggest burdens.

Jon Staiger, who operates a dairy farm west of Billings, showed me the treeless expanse of fields where his herd grazes.

Staiger says he's had to keep a more watchful eye on his expenses.

"Fertilizer prices are up, fuel prices are up, feed prices are up, so we have to be just more careful and better managers"

Since 1978, Staiger has kept his herd fed by planting a certain crop and rotating it out for a different crop every couple of years.

"No till corn, two years, wheat two years, back to alfalfa. We don't ever plow. We do it all with no till, it takes some special equipment"

However, there may be a more cost-effective method of sustaining a small herd.

Boyer explains the grass-based New Zealand method, which is named after the country that currently produces over 40 percent of the world's milk export.

"It's generally about one cow per acre, and these cows primarily are turned out to graze on these small paddocks, they're rotated each day to a new paddock, which lends itself to the production of more grass"

Boyer says this method is very feasible for the small farmer and that Missouri has an advantage over the more arid western states which don't have quite the grazing capacity.

In a sense, each individual dairy cow can be compared to a processing-plant.

Their anatomies are intricate systems which take in various nutrients and then produce consumable milk.

Keeping these "factories with udders" efficient and healthy as possible means farmers can spend less time and money on breeding or buying new cows.

One final option is cross-breeding.

Tommy Perkins is a professor of Animal Science at Missouri State University.

He says while cross-breeding is common in beef cattle, dairy farmers can also use the practice to reap the rewards of a genetically superior animal.

"What we're really gaining in those cows is longevity in those cows, they're going to stay in that milking parlor longer, we see we can produce a little more efficient cow, and probably the one that's most important, it will increase reproductive performance in those cows"

While more states and nations may be going into dairy, that's not to say Missouri has lost its niche.

By implementing these new methods and using new technology, Missouri dairy farmers may find their best years are yet to come.

For KSMU news, I'm Benjamin Fry