By MATTHEW D. ERNST
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — University of Tennessee agriculture research and extension professionals hope a $3 million project to improve milk quality in the Southeast will bolster the state’s dairy industry.
“Milk production and milk quality in our region pales in comparison to the rest of the country,” said Steve Oliver, professor of Animal Science and assistant dean of UT AgResearch. “Many tools exist that are very effective in improving milk quality, and this project will help us figure out why dairy farms in our region aren’t doing what should be done to improve milk quality.”
The Southeast Quality Milk Initiative seeks to enhance sustainability of the region’s dairy industry. The project primarily involves extension education and outreach to the dairy industry, Oliver said.
“We will be doing some applied research to improve mastitis control, but this funding is mainly for extension education and outreach to dairy farms, as well as veterinarians and industry,” he said.
Spearheaded by Oliver, the program involves land grant universities in Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida.
Tennessee consistently has one of the highest somatic cell counts (SCC) in the country for cows participating in the Dairy Herd Improvement program. According to USDA Agricultural Research Service, the national average SCC for 2012 was 200,000 cells per ml.
Tennessee’s average count in 2012 was 323,000 cells per ml. Only South Carolina and Alabama had higher average SCCs than Tennessee in 2012. Oliver said SCC is an indicator of herd production and profitability in Tennessee.
“Herds with a cell count greater than 400,000 averaged 45.5 pounds of milk per cow (per day) in 2012,” he said. “Tennessee herds with cell counts lower that 400,000 averaged 58.4 pounds.
“Based on our average herd size, that difference translates to about $116,000 more income per year. Following health details and standard operating practices can have a huge impact on herd health and profitability.”
Other states with average SCCs exceeding 300,000 were mainly in or near the South: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana and West Virginia.
“Although climatic conditions (temperature and humidity) surely contributed to regional SCC differences, differences between adjacent states were substantial, which suggests that herd size and mastitis-control practices are impacting state differences as well,” reported USDA researchers in February.
The average herd size on Tennessee’s 402 dairy farms in 2012 was 123 cows.
Oliver said the Tennessee Quality Milk Initiative, begun eight years ago, has helped improve health in participating herds. The Southeast Quality Milk Initiative could open other paths for Tennessee producers to improve product quality.
“The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is very interested in possibly building on this (Southeast) initiative in our state,” he said. “Tennessee is in a fluid milk-deficit area, meaning that herds producing quality milk can have an advantage.”
But even in such an area, milk buyers have regulatory and business constraints that make purchasing milk with high SCCs less attractive. “My greatest fear is that if poor milk quality continues in our region, there may no longer be a market for the milk,” said Oliver. “Producing higher quality milk is critical for the dairy industry to continue.”
The program hopes to quell the flow of Tennessee farms exiting milk production. The state’s dairy herd significantly declined between 1995 and 2010. The number of dairy farms decreased by 68 percent during that period, while cow numbers declined by 59 percent.
There were 48,000 dairy cows in Tennessee on Jan. 1, 2013, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service Cattle Inventory, a 4 percent decline from 2012.
The $3 million funding was announced by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture last month. It is part of the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI) Food Security program. AFRI is NIFA’s flagship competitive grants program and was established under the 2008 farm bill.
The five AFRI Challenge Areas of food safety, global food security, childhood obesity prevention, sustainable bioenergy and climate adaptation advance fundamental sciences and deliver science-based knowledge to people, allowing them to make informed practical decisions, according to the USDA.