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Dairy industry leaders, businesses brainstorm ways to solve NYS milk crisis

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Dairy industry experts say finding solutions for farmers to boost milk production seems like solving a jigsaw puzzle.

Participants in an agriculture business round-table discussion Wednesday at Watertown’s Ramada Inn used words like “crossroads,” “turmoil” and “volatile” to describe their industry. But by the end of back-and-forth conversation, educators, business leaders and farmers were armed with fresh ideas about how to turn the industry in a positive direction.

Attended by about 40 people, the discussion underscored the many challenges that face dairy farmers.

But while farmers here are awash in challenges, the state’s milk demand is poised to boom in the next two years with the launch of several Greek yogurt plants. Milk cooperatives in New York state and across the Northeast — which supply milk from farmers to production plants — are struggling to get enough milk to meet the high demand, said Bruce W. Krupke, vice president of the Northeast Dairy Foods Association, which represents 120 dairy plants across eight states in the region.

This summer, Mr. Krupke received numerous worried calls from leaders of major milk cooperatives who warned that farmers aren’t producing enough milk to keep up with the skyrocketing demand. Industry experts have forecasted that in the next 24 to 36 months, dairy farmers in New York state will need to boost milk production by one-fifth — about 4 billion pounds per year. That’s roughly the same amount produced by the entire state of Iowa, the country’s 12th-largest milk producer, in a year.

Mr. Krupke recently met with Dairylea Cooperative General Manager Gregory I. Wickham, who predicted there will be a drastic milk shortage unless production from farmers rapidly picks up. Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties are the top milk producers for the Syracuse-based dairy farmers’ cooperative, which does business with some 1,000 farms statewide and ships milk to major producers like Chobani Yogurt.

“We need to get the word there will be a shortage, because there won’t be enough milk when these plants come on line at the end of 2014,” Mr. Krupke said. “Up to 210,000 more milk cows will be needed in the next 24 months, and I think (this region) stands to benefit from the demand.”

To help dairy farmers with that effort, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo introduced a plan at the state yogurt summit in August that would lift costly manure regulations now hampering small dairy farms adding cattle. Currently, the number of cattle at which small dairy farms are required to enroll as Concentrated Animal Feed Operations is 200, but that threshold would be increased to 300 under the plan.

Rolling back those costly manure regulations, which require farms to invest in storage facilities and annual inspections, likely will spur dairy farms with fewer than 200 cattle to grow if they have enough resources to do so, said Joseph R. Lawrence, educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County. But that growth still could require expanding facilities and hiring more labor.

“Right now, farmers get overwhelmed when they look at having to manage more people and comply with these regulations,” Mr. Lawrence said. “But if they don’t have the resources to manage (more employees), it’s going to be tough to expand. Farmers could add 100 cows, but managing the operation might be another stumbling block.”

Participants did agree, however, that dairy farmers won’t choose to expand their operations unless they have a clear-cut incentive to do so. While today’s low milk prices make it tough to justify expansion, they said, farmers can take steps to improve their operations so that herds produce more milk. Improving the quality of forage harvested from crops, for example, and upgrading feeding operations are steps most farmers take.

“I see that dairy farmers aren’t doing do all of the cow-comfort projects they could to get the most milk production from their cattle,” said Jay M. Matteson, agricultural coordinator for Jefferson County, who moderated the round-table talk. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of other low-hanging fruit out there.”

As a possible solution, educators suggested launching a program in which a team of agriculture experts would visit farms to identify practices to make operations more efficient. Kevin J. Jordan, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, said such a program likely could be established with grant funding.

“A team of folks could work with farmers to say, ‘Not only will you be more productive if you do these efforts, you will also have more profit on the side.’ It would be a way for us to look at it and say the end result is more production and profits,” he said.

Wednesday’s round-table event was hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.

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