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Will state’s dairy industry survive Hurricane Katrina?

Many people don’t realize there even is a dairy industry in Mississippi.

“But it is important particularly where it is concentrated in the south central part of the state near Tylertown and McComb,” says Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension ag economist John Anderson. “The dairy industry there was devastated not just by the hurricane, but what happened afterwards. You might even say it is a tragic situation for that industry.”

Hurricane Katrina was just the beginning of the problems. The storm caused extensive wind and water damages. Downed trees destroyed barns, equipment, fences and other facilities.

Farmers lost power from three days to two weeks. Dairy farmers need to milk twice per day, or they can lose milk production for the entire remaining lactation cycle of the dairy cows.

Most of the farms have backup generators, but don’t have enough capacity to run milking machines and refrigerate the milk. So many farmers had to dump their milk down the drain.

“It was an absolute mess,” Anderson said. “Then, after the hurricane it got very dry. The farmers rely a lot on rye grass pasture in the winter. There was no rye grass until well into January, so that increased the cost of production. It has had a serious impact on the dairy industry.”

Destruction, low prices adding up

Add in low prices for milk, and you have a situation is threatening the survival of this industry in Mississippi.

“An estimate of the immediate and short-term economic losses from wind and water damages totaled more than $7.5 million, or about $43,000 per farm,” said Bill Herndon, a professor of agricultural economics at MSU. “The longer term, secondary impacts of Katrina on the Mississippi dairy sector will be much greater and could threaten the continued existence of this important industry. An initial estimate of the short and longer term losses over the next 12 months totals almost $21.1 million (or more than $120,000 per farm), which includes a 25% reduction in milk production caused by the effects of irregular feed supply and milkings, and various cow health issues such as heat stress, illnesses and diseases.”

Another milk market disruption has been the temporary closure of milk processing plants. For example, the Dairy Fresh plant located in Hattiesburg was not able to process any milk for three days because of the lack of electrical power and water.

Then there were problems getting the milk to the processing plants. Fallen trees blocked roads. After roads were cleared, fuel became so scarce it was difficult to buy diesel.

Before Katrina there were 235 dairies in the state. About 175 were located south of Interstate 20 in the path of the most damage from the hurricane. Immediately seven to 10 dairies sold out their herds.

Strike one was the initial damages and costs for maintaining the dairy herds. Strike two was no assistance from the federal or state government.

“Strike three was they didn’t have any rain until right before Christmas,” Herndon said. “These dairy farmers rely on growing rye grass in October, and grazing their cows on that rye grass from mid to late October into March or April when it gets warm. That is a cheap source of food. So they had to purchase feed to replace rye grass.”

Strike four is what has happened to energy prices, which impacts the cost of fertilizer. Some dairy farmers fertilized their pastures two or three times hoping for rain. “The nitrogen fertilizer dissipated before we got a rain,” Herndon said. “That was an additional cost.”

In more recent months, there has been rain that has been helpful. But Herndon says what is needed is federal assistance for hurricane relief dedicated to dairy farmers.
Dairy producers face difficult choices between repairing damages estimated at almost $140,000 per farm or ceasing operations.

“An estimated 25% to 30% of impacted farms may quit milking, which will reduce the critical mass needed to sustain this industry,” he said. “The impact of Hurricane Katrina has obviously been severe and far-reaching. It has been one thing after another and it has really had an impact. As a result, there are only 198 dairies left in the state of Mississippi.”

When Lamar Adams came to work for the Walthall County Cooperative Extension Service in 1990, there were 90 dairies in the county. Today the county with the most dairies in the state is down to 36 producers — and the outlook is challenging for the survivors.

“We have lost four farms since Katrina hit, and several more are probably going to be selling out of business as their rye grass pasture grazing plays out in late April to mid May,” said Adams, who is Walthall County Extension director.

Milk prices have fluctuated a lot in the past 20 years, and the volatility has caused a number of dairy farmers to throw in the towel. Adams said people got tired of making a little money one month, and 60% less that next month.

“It is hard to stay in business when you don’t know the level your income will be,” he said. “Folks have to enjoy what they are doing to stick with it particularly when facing the economic challenges of today.”

If the current trend for dairy farm closures continues, it could have the effect of making the entire industry unprofitable. The net result would that milk consumed in Mississippi wouldn’t be made in Mississippi.

“We need enough dairies left in Mississippi and the Southeast to furnish the bottling needs of the consumers,” Adams said. “We are already not meeting the demand, and are importing milk from other areas of the country. If we lose a whole lot more of our farms, it is that much more milk that has to be imported.”

If that happened, milk would be less fresh and have a shorter shelf life compared to local milk.

“It is very disturbing when economic conditions are forcing so many of our dairy farmers out of business,” Adams said. “When you have such a mass exodus of farms, it makes you seriously question what the future holds for the dairy industry in our state. Hopefully the dairy industry will survive to meet the demand of fresh, wholesome, nutritious and delicious dairy products.”

A.L. “Sonny” Boyd has been dairy farming near Jayess in Walthall County for 45 years. He has been transitioning the farm over to his daughter, Tanya Rushing, in order to retire. But current conditions make them question the future.

“The dairy industry in this area has been going down consistently since 1990,” Boyd said. “Most had to do with the movement of milk, the Farm Bill and not getting our fair share of the dollar the finished product is bringing. When you get on the downside of something, it is hard to climb back up again. Then we get hit by tornadoes, hurricanes and drought.”

Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the first recent disaster at the Boyd farm, which was hit by a tornado in May 2004. And soon after the hurricane Boyd’s wife became ill. She died February 3.

“My wife was never sick before, but she got cancer after the hurricane,” Boyd said. “It has been a tough row the past three or four years. Katrina was just the latest natural disaster. We were still recovering from a tornado May 1, 2004, that tore up the house and barn, and killed some cows.”

Over the years, dairy farming has been more than a way to make a living. Boyd said it has also been a great way of life.

“But if you can’t survive, you don’t have no way of life,” Boyd said. “My daughter does most of the milking now. She is looking at a tough time right now. We need to hold on to what we got. This area is too well suited to growing cattle. I would hate to see all that good cattle land turn into pine trees. That isn’t the best thing for the county. If there is any way to hold on to the dairy industry in Walthall County, we need to do it. This has been the backbone of the economy here for many years, and there is nothing to take its place.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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