We’re All In This Together
Earlier this month I spend five days traveling back and forth to Arendtsville, Pa., to attend our county fair with my family. Although long ago I outgrew any interest in showing dairy cattle on my own, I do enjoy watching my boys compete with their dairy heifers and dairy beef animals. Sports schedules and other activities have gotten in the a way of them competing in any of the state or regional shows, but they look forward all summer long to that one week in August when they get to camp out at the fair.
What I enjoy most about the fair, though, is the sense of community that exists there. Dairy farm families come together from across the county to spend a week together, sharing the water racks, helping each other when someone is short-handed, showing the younger 4-Hers how to fit their animals, and just enjoying catching up with each other. Some of the families are now in the second and third generation of kids coming to the fair, and many people that I showed with as a kid usually come back at least for one night to see everyone.
I would imagine that most county fairs are that way, and I believe it is a reflection of something really great about our industry: That sense of community and the understanding that, no matter what, we’re all in this together.
A Sense of Community
With milk prices at multi-year lows and dry weather conditions throughout the state, this summer has been extremely challenging for many farms. Each week we are seeing herd dispersals in the paper, and I know with each of those dispersals there goes a lifetime of dedication, commitment and work. The downturn in the dairy economy is affecting everyone in our industry – from the farm family struggling to pay bills, to the service provider who is working with customers as their accounts receivable grow, to the cooperative struggling to balance an unbalanced milk supply and keep member costs low, to the equipment dealers and construction companies who have seen sales diminish.
Many people across the industry are having conversations on how to move the needle on milk sales and milk prices, and those efforts are starting to result in slightly higher milk prices than what we’ve seen in the past few months. Conversations are being had in Washington, DC, and in Harrisburg about how we can support dairy farms through this short-term economic challenge. In fact, in late July, 37 members of the US Congress sent a letter to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for some level of relief.
The attitude that “We Are All In This Together” runs deep within our dairy industry. In my role with the Center for Dairy Excellence, it’s something that I’ve witness not just within Pennsylvania’s dairy industry but across the nation, with dairy leaders continuing to work to find solutions to spur increased milk prices. Although it’s hard to recognize that right now, we’re fortunate as an industry and as individual farms to have so many advocates working on our behalf.
So, with that, what comes to my mind is two things that we can do as dairy farm families. The first is to “Be Kind Because Everyone Is Going Through Something Hard.” I first heard this statement several years ago at the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit when Jenne’ Fromm spoke. She was a cancer survivor and spoke about how, one day when she was really angry at the world, she almost took it out on a Department of Transportation clerk who she thought was not giving her the service she deserved. She quickly realized that the clerk had just gone through something tragic and that her anger would have only made that person feel much worse.
We are all challenged to be kind to others. But, too often, when things get difficult, we look for people to blame – our family members, our neighbors, our suppliers and service providers, our market providers, our lenders. But at the end of the day, when a dairy farm struggle, every other business associated with it struggles as well. Just remember that anger never solved anything.
Focus on the Controllables
The second is to “Focus on the Controllables.” Too often we spend time frustrated by things that are out of our control and not enough time working on the things that are within our control. Class III futures milk prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) have rebounded somewhat to levels at or above $16. Now might be a good time to consider placing a floor under your milk price through forward contracting or purchasing LGM for Dairy Insurance. Ask your cooperative about contracting options for your size dairy operation or contact a company like Stewart Peterson, Rice Dairy or Blimling & Associates for advice.
Beyond milk price, dairy farm families should be evaluating every aspect of their dairy to control costs and increase revenue. In June, Michigan just replaced Pennsylvania as the fifth highest state in total milk production with 918 million pounds of milk, 4 million above what we produced in the Commonwealth. The larger story behind the switch, though, is the fact that Michigan is producing that level of milk production with 100,000 fewer cows than what we have here in Pennsylvania.
In the mid 1990s, Pennsylvania was ranked 7th in milk production per cow. Now we are ranked 20th out of the Top 23 Milk Producing States. Although higher milk production does not always equate to higher profitability, we do know that the last ten pounds of milk a cow produces is more often than not the most profitable. Evaluating what you’re doing to focus on milk production may be one way to strengthen your revenue and work through the downturn.
The Center for Dairy Excellence has resources that can help. Our Dairy Decisions Consultant Program provides a grant for farms to work with consultants to evaluate their operation, identify bottlenecks and find solutions for future farm viability. With the current downturn in prices, the center is working quickly to pair those farms that apply for a DDC with consultants to get the help that is needed right away.
For more information about this program and others from the center, visit our website at www.centerfordairyexcellence.org. Or call our office at 717-346-0849.
Editor’s Note: This is a monthly column written by Jayne Sebright, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence.