Center Focus Column

Survey Offers Insight into Pennsylvania Dairy Farms

Last year in June, we invited all dairy farm families from within the Commonwealth to participate in a survey to help identify the needs and trends of Pennsylvania’s dairy industry. The survey was part of the larger Pennsylvania Dairy Study that looked at all aspects of our dairy industry. The results of that survey are being published by the Center later this month.

About 995 farms participated in the survey, representing about 15 percent of the dairy farms in Pennsylvania. Roughly27 percent of the farms that responded resided in Lancaster County, while about 22 percent were from Franklin, Berks, Cumberland and Lebanon Counties. The total number of cows represented in the survey was just below 88,000 head, representing 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s total dairy herd.

The average herd size of the survey respondents was approximately 100 cows, while the responding farms had an average of 267 acres and 83 heifers. The average age of farmers responding was 53, and each farm on average supported 1.46 households. Only 3 percent of the farms responding had women listed as the principle owners.

31 percent of the farms responding housed their milking cows in freestall facilities, while 66 percent had the milking herd housed in tie stall facilities. The remaining herds were either grazed or kept in grouped housing on bedded pack. On average, responding farms were generating about 85 percent of their income from milk sales.

Modernization, Consolidation on the Horizon

The survey asked respondents to share their plans and concerns related to their future in the dairy business. About 22 percent of the respondents expect to invest in facility improvements in their milking cow facilities within the next five years, while 13 percent expect to make improvements in dry cow and heifer housing. Nearly 30 percent expect investments in either feed or manure management and storage facilities in the next five years, while 13 percent want to invest in renewable energy technologies.

About 86 percent of the farms expect to be milking cows in the next five years, while only 53 percent indicated they were confident in their ability to be profitable at their current herd size. The farms that indicated plans to exit within the five years listed various reasons for exiting. 37 percent planned to exit because they were retiring, while 24 percent listed financial challenges as the reason for exiting. Just over 7 percent said they planned to exit because of issues in finding good help.

When those farms planning to exit were balanced out with those farms planning to grow, respondents projected about a 11-percent decrease in total cow numbers over the next five years. This indicates that the state’s average herd size will continue to increase, as farm numbers decline.

Expansion was not identified as a priority over the next five years. Instead, farms responding listed maximizing milk price, increasing milk components, and lowering their cost of production by maximizing homegrown feed as their priorities over the next three to five years. The greatest needs identified by respondents were access to milk markets and land availability.

Need for More Business Planning

2017 was the third time the Center for Dairy Excellence conducted the Pennsylvania Dairy Producer Survey, done every five years. Comparing results from the three surveys paints a telling picture of Pennsylvania’s dairy industry. The average herd size has remained relatively flat based on survey results over the past 10 years, while the total daily milk production has nearly doubled from 5,504 pounds in 2007 to 9,293 pounds in 2017. Somatic cell counts dropped in half during the same time period.

Still, the survey demonstrates the need for increased business planning on Pennsylvania’s dairy farms. Only 60 percent of the responding farms in 2017 indicated they worked with an accountant or financial consultant, roughly flat with 2007 and 2012 results. Just over 15 percent indicated they had a formal written business plan, while 13 percent said they had a transition plan in place.

Roughly 87 percent of the farms responding indicated they work with a nutritionist on a regular basis, while 58 percent said they used timed breeding programs on their dairy. In addition, 23 percent indicated they use crop insurance, while 14 percent said they used any risk management programs other than crop insurance. Finally, 75 percent said they completed and have a maintained manure management plan for their dairy farms.

More results on the 2017 Pennsylvania Dairy Farm Survey are available by clicking here.  

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, and published monthly in the Lancaster Farming Dairy Reporter.