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Pasture-based dairy among ag tour stops

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

During Congressman Roy Blunt's 13th annual agriculture tour on Monday, dairy farming was discussed at the Mike Meier farm between Monett and Purdy. University of Missouri Extension Service dairy specialist Dr. Tony Rickard, at right, talked about changes in the local industry as Blunt, at left, and Meier, second from left, look on. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Mike Meier was ready to quit dairy farming. A fourth generation dairy farmer on the north edge of Stones Prairie, halfway between Monett and Purdy, Meier was facing escalating costs and no real solution that would keep his farm profitable short of abandoning dairying altogether for beef production.

Three years ago, Meier went to a conference on pasture-based dairy operations, hosted by the University of Missouri Extension Service. He re-tooled his approach to dairying and is now expanding his herd.

This success story was one of several shared with Seventh District Congressman Roy Blunt during Blunt's 13th annual agriculture tour, which included four stops in Barry and Lawrence counties on Monday.

Dr. Tony Rickard, dairy specialist with the Extension Service who was present on the tour with fellow dairy specialist Stacey Hamilton, told the group attending the tour that Barry County had 152 dairies in the early 1980s when Rickard first came to southwest Missouri. Today, Barry County has 30.

Blunt recalled that at one time, the Seventh District was one of the top 10 congressional districts in the nation for milk production. While that may no longer be the case, Rickard said 10,000 cows have been added to Barry County herds in the last 10 years. The upswing is the result of new approaches like pasture-based dairying.

For Meier, the strategy has cut his input costs. The seasonal cycle, which allows his cows to go dry in the winter and all the calving to take place in the spring, simplifies his work year.

By rotating the cows to a different pasture area every 15 days, Meier said he has less clean-up. The Meier farm has 160 acres with only 52 used as pasture now, leaving almost an acre per cow.

One of the keys to making pasture-based dairying work has been getting water out to the pastures. Rickard said in the past 10 years $100 million in infrastructure has been added in southwest Missouri. Meier used one of the government programs to help fund extension of water lines. Now cows do not have to walk more than a half-mile to reach water and will stay in the fields all day.
Rickard said a mile is about as far as cows will walk for water. That distance will cost a dairy producer about three to four pounds of milk.

Pasture-based dairies do not produce as much milk as confinement dairies, said David Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association. Cows foraging for their meals produce an average of 13,000 pounds of milk a year, whereas cows in confinement dairies produce about twice that.

"There's room for both types of dairies," Drennan said.

For Meier, the benefit for pasture-based dairying has been to bring his costs down to where he can again afford to expand. By next March, he plans to increase his herd from 62 milking cows at present to 100. He has sold his beef herd.
Rickard said dairy farmers had been "working themselves to death." Pasture-based dairying gives them a chance to have a life again. About 25 percent of dairies are practicing pasture-based dairying now.

Dairying has one of the highest multipliers of any industry for the impact of money, Rickard said.

Every $1 put into dairy generates $3.29 due to the products made from milk and the jobs created through creating and marketing the products.

Rickard said southwest Missouri remains strategically located for future dairy growth. Temperatures make the growth of both cold and warm season grasses possible. Land remains relatively inexpensive, and a lot of undeveloped land is still available.

Stops on Blunt's tour focused on the importance of agriculture to the overall economy. Blunt said the Meier farm illustrated how the dairy industry could thrive using techniques from decades ago when combined with the knowledge of today's research.

In addition to visiting the Meier's farm near Purdy, Blunt's ag tour also made stops at the Dairy Farmers of America and Tyson Foods plants in Monett, which will be featured in a separate article that will be published in tommorow's Monett Times.

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