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Technology Has Improved the Milk Industry

June 27, 2008

By Chris Kick

With June being dairy month, I decided to write a column discussing the changes and advances we have seen during the last 60 years. Fifty plus of these years I have been involved with the industry as a dairy farm employee, college student, extension and research and dairy producer. So one of my reasons for writing this column is the attack being made over the adoption of technology in all agriculture and the controversy over the labeling of milk.

As most everyone is aware, Wayne County is Ohio’s leading dairy county and neighboring Holmes is second. In both counties, dairy production is the largest contributor to the agriculture economy. Ohio ranks 11th in dairy production and first in Swiss cheese production. Ohio is also important in fluid milk and ice cream production and we are a milk deficit state. During the last several years, we have seen the decline in production turnaround to an increase of 1-2 percent per year. This is a good trend for our industry.

Let’s review a few of the major changes that have occurred in Ohio starting in 1974 when I arrived in Wayne County. In that year, Ohio had 407,000 milk cows on 16,500 farms. These cows averaged 10,307 pounds of milk per year/cow and the state’s total production was 4.2 billion pounds. In 1985, we had 388,000 cows on 11,000 farms. The average production was 12,552 pounds per cow/year and total production was 4.8 billion pounds.

In 1995, we had 289,000 cows in Ohio on 7,500 farms. The annual production for a cow was 15,917 pounds per year and the state produced 4.6 billion pounds of milk. In 2007, Ohio had 274,000 cows – - up from 273,000 in 2006 — on 4,400 farms. The production per cow now stands at 17,500 pounds per year and we produced 4.8 billion pounds of milk.

What has allowed our dairy producers to actually increase our state’s production from 12,000 fewer dairy farms and 133,000 less cows? First, we must congratulate our dairy producers’ excellent business managers. Today’s dairy managers pay attention to detail and their cow’s health and comfort is top priority along with excellent nutrition.

As I look back to the 1930s and 1940s, the first two technologies that changed the industry were the milking machine and artificial insemination (AI). The milking machine allowed the dairy farmer to milk more cows and produce milk of higher quality. Once frozen semen was available, AI allowed the use of superior genetic sires to be used anywhere in the U.S.

This combination brought about the start of increased production per cow.

In the 1950s, we saw the bulk tank arrive on farms which allowed milk to be cooled quickly and stored at 36-38 degrees, improving milk quality. This advance in storage also allowed more cows to be milked. Milking equipment continued to improve and it was also during these years real advancements in nutrition began.

In the 1960s, significant changes in housing and milking came about with the development of free stall barns and milking parlors. These new technologies allowed farms to milk more cows and manage more cows per worker. This change in housing made significant improvements in cow comfort. Again, genetics continued to improve production and nutrition made great advances.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, research developed the feeding technology called Total Mixed Rations (TMR). I was fortunate to be involved with some of this early work while at the University of Massachusetts. We also learned a lot about protein nutrition during these years.

During the 1980s and 1990s and into the 2000, we have seen seen tremendous advances in housing and milking allowing farms to manage many more cows per worker. We now know how to keep cows cool and comfortable. The TMR feeding systems today even allow for computerized tracking of what is being fed. We now have the farm machinery to handle large amounts of high quality forages which are the basis of the feeding program. The plant researchers have provide species that are of higher quality and improved yields.

Let us not forget the tremendous strides made in animal health. Research has produced antibiotics, vaccines management protocols that have eradicated many diseases and reduced the occurrence of others. Our veterinarians are specially trained in dairy and large animal health. This improved cow health is certainly an important factor that has allowed for the increase in production per cow.

Today, we continue to see research that will advance management, nutrition, genetics and herd health. Today’s dairy producer is an excellent business manager that relies on the development of new technology for making the dairy business profitable. We will continue to see consolidation in the industry as farms get larger and production per cow continues to increase.

The milk and dairy products consumers purchase today is of the highest quality ever. The dairy producers and processors take great care and pride in providing the highest quality of ” Nature’s Most Perfect Food:” milk.

Tom Noyes is OSU Extension Dairy Educator Emeritus

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