Back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s, Walthall County was a cotton-growing county, but in the early ‘50s, farmers began to take a different route.
Many left the cotton business for dairy farming, giving Walthall County its nickname — the Cream Pitcher of Mississippi.
There were more than 500 dairy farms in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Walthall County with farms scattered all over. Most milked 25 to 50 cows, and back then many dairy farmers were using Jersey cattle. In the mid- to late-’60s and early ‘70s, farmers began using the Holstein breed, the larger stature breed of dairy cattle.
More changes came in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when milk prices became volatile, forcing several producers to sell out of the dairy business. By 2000, there were just 61 dairy farms in Walthall County.
Those 61 dairies, however, house about the same number of cows that have always been in the county, according to Dr. Bill Herndon, professor and dairy economist at Mississippi State University (MSU).
“The average size dairy farm used to have less than 100 cows in its operation,” Herndon said. “Today, that number is about 125.”
Last year, Mississippi produced a total of 546 million pounds of milk. Walthall County produced 89.1 million pounds, enough for the county to keep its nickname.
While 546 million pounds may seem like a lot, Mississippi ranks just 30th out of all 50 states in dairy production. Certain Western states have increased their production while Mississippi has lost many dairy farmers due to the high costs of milk production.
“I don’t think the dairy industry is going away,” Herndon said. “But just like any other industry, in agriculture, farms are getting bigger and fewer because of the economy.”
There are approximately 400 dairies in South Mississippi and in the southeast corner of Louisiana.
Lamar Adams, Walthall County agriculture agent with the MSU Extension Service, said, “I think Walthall County will always have a dairy industry because we are such a high Class 1 utilization area. People expect and demand fresh fluid milk to consume and if we don’t have these local dairy farms, by the time they truck this milk down here it won’t be as fresh.”
Class 1 dairy is used for fluid consumption, and the USDA has established Class 1 differentials to offset some costs associated with transportation and processing. In Mississippi as opposed to some other states, milk must be transported away from dairies to other places where it is processed.
“The difference between us and the upper Midwest is there is a cheese plant every so often,” Adams said.
Adams agrees that the future means fewer farms and larger herd sizes, but not the elimination of dairy farms from Walthall County or from the state altogether.
Walthall County is taking action to offset some of its losses. In the last 11 years, Sanderson Farms has built a processing plant in McComb, and some dairy farmers have diversified their operations so they can operate poultry farms as well as dairy farms. Some dairy farmers who have gone out of business have switched completely to poultry farming.
Walthall County is also a big producer of timber. Half the county’s total acreage is forest.
But Adams said those two agricultural sectors will not completely offset losses in the dairy industry as farmers retire.
“If we lose a high percentage of our dairy farms, it will have a devastating blow to this area,” Adams said. “It’s gotten to the point now where a lot of herds are selling out. If we lose more herds, production will drop more than what we’ve been seeing and that will cause the production value of milk to go down. It will certainly be an economic blow because the dairy business is the largest agricultural enterprise in the county and also has a tremendous economic impact on life, as we know it in the Walthall County area.
“As producers go out of business, employees won’t have jobs,” he said. “The feed supply stores will be losing business they rely on heavily. Plus dairy operations use electricity and natural gas, and utilities will suffer those losses as well.”
Herndon and others are looking for answers through state-sponsored programs and other incentives for young farmers.
“We’ve been trying to work on a couple of state-sponsored programs that give young farmers incentives to go into dairy farming, but as far as putting one in place, that hasn’t happened yet,” Herndon said. “Some states have financial packages and tax incentives for farmers to start dairy farms in their states, but Mississippi does not have one.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at email@example.com or (601) 364-1042.