UK - Dairy farmers visit US farms

22 Jul 2010

 group of 17 representatives from the British dairy industry formed a delegation that flew out to the United States last week on a fact-finding mission, organised by Kite Consulting, to find out more about large scale dairy farming ‘US style’.


The delegation, which comprised farmers, the NFU, Dairy UK, milk processors, retailers, the RSPCA and agricultural journalists, visited farms ranging from 100 to 30,000 cows and met with academics from the University of Wisconsin, Dairy Management Inc (DMI) and Dairy Farmers of America on their quest to understand how the US, and its consumers, have adapted to large-scale dairy units.
Here, Hayley Campbell-Gibbons, the NFU's chief dairy adviser, talks us through the fact-finding tour...
Day one
University of Wisconsin, Jim Salfer
The US dairy industry as a whole has consolidated hugely in the last ten years. Today, 15,000 dairies produce 85% of the milk. Ten years ago, 85% of the milk came from just 35% of dairy farms. The biggest growth rate has been seen in the 500+ cow farms.
Jim provided an overview of the US Dairy Market, describing the growth in the number of farms locating in the Central Valley of California, and the general decreasing trend for dairy farming in the Eastern states. The growth in the west has been characterised largely by large scale dairy units, which run into the multiple thousand head of cattle, while the east is more typically populated with smaller scale, family dairy farms.
The drivers for running either scale operation are the same - maximising efficiency and profitability. For example, smaller farms in the east can achieve greater profitability per cow because of their proximity to America’s ‘corn belt’, which reduces their feed costs and the need to increase scale.
Whereas, the transport costs for feed in the West mean that scale is a huge consideration. That said, the number of farms expanding in the east is growing as cows are moving closer to the population, feed and water. The east is now in fact home to some of the US’s largest dairy farms (albeit in a smaller number than the west).
It’s hard to get a handle on what consumers really think about large scale dairying in America. There is a perception that the public, and some farmers, particularly in the mid-west and eastern states are opposed to large scale units, yet despite this, farmers rarely encounter negative reactions from consumers.
Dr. Pamela Ruegg – Dairying in the state of Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, or ‘America’s Dairyland’ as it is known, dairying makes a huge contribution to the economy. Key statistics are:
Population of 5.5 million people
The average cow generates $17,000 a year in economic activity
Dairying contributes $20 billion a year to the economy
Agriculture in total contributes $50 billion
There are 160,000 jobs directly related to the dairy industry
This is 11% of employment in Wisconsin
Wisconsin is primarily a cheese manufacturing state. It has 211 dairy plants, mainly producing
commodity cheese.
There is a very diverse mix of farming types in Wisconsin and ‘there is a need for them all to maintain the health of the industry’. Wisconsin is probably the closest state in terms of the size, structure and geography of its dairy industry to Great Britain.  Why?
13,000 dairy farms currently (more than any other state)
Farmers milk 1.3 million dairy cows
The average age of a dairy farmer is 52
Average herd size of 99
Number of herds over 500 is less than 2%, but those farms provide 20% of the milk
Losing three dairy farmers a day
As an industry, dairy farms in Wisconsin face a number of issues, including:
1. Large farm sitings (planning, public concerns over noise, odours, manures, government regulations
for large units).
2. Environmental issues (water and energy use, nutrient planning).
3. Managing the diversity of systems – promoting the message that big and small farms manage their cows differently, but all can be managed well.
4. Welfare – consumer perceptions and expectations on welfare differ, but US consumers are considered to be ‘uninterested’ in large scale units generally.
5. Traceability and Farm Assurance – currently no systems in place, although an assurance system is currently being developed and introduced across America.
6. Maintaining critical mass as the industry consolidates – concern that the number of vets, nutritionists and suppliers will reduce.
7. Competing internationally – being efficient and making best use of technology.

Farm Visit 1: Wisconsin
400 acres, 90 cow unit, family run, routinely housed herd on sand beds with dry cows on pasture.
The cows are milked twice a day in a traditional ‘ waterpipe’ parlour with tie stalls.
The biggest issues for the farmer were milk price and cost of production (familiar concerns for most British dairy farmers too).
Farm Visit 2: Wisconsin
800 cows, family dairy farm with an expansion plan to increase to 1150 cows. The herd is routinely housed on sand beds, and milked three times a day in a herringbone parlour. The farm grows all its own feed.
Community reaction to the farm’s expansion was an important consideration, and the farmer made huge efforts to bring the community in on the proposals.
‘Helping the public understand what we are doing is the way to helping them accept it. It worked for us, and the locals now refer to this place as ‘our farm’.’
On larger units, the farmer said that debt was the biggest worry – with milk prices low and interest rates at 6.2% he described it as ‘difficult to survive’.
Day Two
Farm visit 3: Central Sands Dairy, managed by Gordie Jones, veterinarian and adviser to Nocton Dairy
Central Sands Dairy is home to 4000 cross-bred cows (Jersey Holsteins). The cows are milked three times a day on a 72 point rotary. The cows are routinely housed on sand beds in four row barns with 2 cubicles each side. Large fans are placed every thirty feet above the cubicles. On any day when the temperature reaches 65 degrees Fahrenheit 100 fans and water droppers swing into action in the pre-milking holding area to keep the cows comfortable and cool. Each barn is 1560ft in length and houses 1600 cows. The farm employs 34 members of staff.
The cows average an annual milk yield of 10,500 litres. Cows over 100 days old are injected with BST (growth hormones) every 10 days. The use of BST is being banned in certain states, and the farmer said he would have no problem with a ban, as long as there is a consistent rule for all.
 “I have a passion for my cows, but I also have a passion for my $30 million investment, so I have to be as efficient and productive as I can be, so if nobody could use BST then it would be a level playing field, but while I can, I will”.
Lameness on the farm was reportedly low, with 300 cases, which is less than 1% of the herd. The farm operates a strict routine of foot bathing, trimming and a high forage diet, which Geordie says helps to keep the cows robust.
Day three
Farm visit 4: Fair Oaks Dairy, Indiana
Fair Oaks Farms is owned by five farming families. The dairy is one of the largest in the US and milks Holstein cows. The business is open daily to the public and is committed to offering an experience where milk production and processing can be explored.
Fair Oaks Farm is quite simply something else. Located 75 miles from Downtown Chicago Fair Oaks is home to 30,000 milking cows, located on ten sites of 3,000 cows. Fair Oaks also farm 19,000 acres to grow enough silage corn and alfalfa hay to feed the cows.
Cows are milked three times a day on rotary systems, and housed in freestall barns. Vet, nutritionists and herdsmen are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 
At Fair Oaks 80-100 calves a day are born on average, and the public are able to watch live calvings (more on that later). After 80 days the heifers move on to dedicated rearing facilities, and return after two years. The bull calves are sold for beef.
Aside from the sheer scale of Fair Oaks, which is certainly impressive, it’s the approach to engaging with consumers that struck our group as inspirational. Rather than being a farm that is hidden away from the public eye,  the focus of negative media attention or one that tries to stay ‘under the radar’ Fair Oaks is home to a visitor centre which attracts hundreds of thousands of visits by families, tour groups, school children, corporate groups and interested foreigners like us every year!
With an adventure centre, cinema screen and birthing barn, as well as an artisan cheese store and fantastic café and farm shop all on site it’s no surprise that people visit Fair Oaks in their droves. The central message to anybody visiting Fair Oaks, is ‘It’s all about the cow’. The public can learn about the history of dairy farming, cow management, housing, diet and nutrition, watch the cows being milked, watch live calvings in the ‘birthing barn’ and visit the nursery pen to visit the newborn calves.
Fairy Oaks Farm is undoubtedly an impressive example of large scale farming in the US, which combines efficient and high quality milk production with high standards of welfare, positive farming education, consumer interaction and an enjoyable family experience which is unlike anything we have in the UK.
Day four
Don Schriver, Dairy Farmers of America, one of the largest co-operative milk buyers in the US with 18,000 members, offered us a supply chain perspective on larger units. As a milk buyer, Don saw two separate issues emerging in the US – scale and housing.
Don’s view of Fair Oaks Farm was that it is ‘done to perfection’. He said: “The milk quality is high, it has high volumes and the supply is consistent. What processor wouldn’t want that?”
One of the challenges DFA did see in the future was managing the needs of members of such varying scales. With big farms come big volumes too and DFA is considering volume controls which may include fixed volume contracts, and non-exclusive contracts. As a co-operative taking all the milk produced by the members was described as being ‘expected, but not necessarily the best thing to do’.
DFA believes that there is a disconnect between consumers and food, with the majority of US consumers believing that food comes from the store, and having little interest in the provenance of food beyond that. The vocal groups make the headlines on welfare, and the industry works to counter that, but overall, negative public perception of large scale farming it is simply not that big an issue in the US.
Stacey Stevens, Dairy Management Inc (DMI), which is the US equivalent of DairyCo in the UK, talked about issues management and communication relating to larger units.
The US approach to handling public concerns is:
Using farmers and vets as spokespeople
Having joint industry messages on welfare issues
Maintaining consistency in messaging and ‘taking the high road’
Tracking consumer attitude and understanding what consumers want, and how much they want to
know before being proactive in welfare messaging.
Most inspirational, however, was DMI’s approach to farmer communication. US dairy farmers are encouraged to have their own PR plans for the farm, which include things such as identifying third parties to speak positively about the farm, photographs, websites, trained spokespeople and a plan of action for ‘when bad things happen’. DMI runs free media workshops for farmers which are aimed at ‘how to tell your story’.
Overall, the aim of any communication be it by a farmer, a milk buyer or a spokesperson should be to protect and promote the image of dairy producers and the dairy industry.
Since the Trip, the study group has met again to discuss actions and activities that can be pursued in the UK. This includes:
‘One voice on welfare’ - promoting use of DairyCo farming ‘issues statements’ so that messages on welfare are co-ordinated, and we achieve the consistent ‘one-voice’.
The NFU has invited dairy sector organisations to endorse the (soon to be launched) Dairy Cow Welfare Strategy and action plan.
The industry would benefit from having access to aggregated data on welfare initiatives and standards adopted by retailers to enhance our messages and ensure greater awareness of welfare activity across the industry.
The dairy industry should jointly promote the consumer facing website and link to it from their own websites to increase consumer hits on a positive, factual dairying site.
Producers need to become more professional about how they communicate with their communities and the public on farming issues. DairyCo can facilitate this and adopt US training ideas.


Dawn Meats Group

Back to News Headlines