Dairy cows across upstate New York are treated a lot like professional athletes, according to the state Farm Bureau.
“Farmers work with veterinarians to fine-tune nutrition,” spokesman Steve Ammerman said. “They monitor all aspects of the cow’s health to keep it operating at the highest possible level.”
Unlike professional athletes, fine-tuned cows don’t run faster or hit balls farther than the average cow. They just produce more milk. Improvements made in upstate cow nutrition over the past few years contributed to some recent dairy industry acclaim.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced Wednesday that New York state edged past Idaho by 57 million pounds of milk in 2013, claiming the title of third-largest dairy producing state in the country.
New York dairy farmers carried that title from 1972 to 2009, but lost it for a few years. The state’s cow population did grow slightly between 2012 and 2013, but per-cow yield improvements accounted for most of the increase in milk production.
Milk production per cow in the state increased by more than 10 percent over the past five years thanks to more accurate nutrition.
“We measure feed right down to micro-nutrients,” said Robby Dygert, who runs a 100-cow dairy farm in the town of Palatine. All of his cows get a precisely calculated mix of hay, corn silage and grain designed to maximize milk production and health.
“It’s 30 percent genetics,” he said, “and 70 percent environment.”
Getting the No. 3 rating back, Ammerman said, should be a point of pride for farmers, but it also drives home just how important the dairy industry is to the state.
Dairy is New York’s largest agricultural sector, employing nearly 10,000 people. Hundreds more work in the state’s industry-leading yogurt, cream cheese and cottage cheese facilities.
Ammerman said dairy is an economic lifeline, especially in the industry-starved upstate area, driving the expansion of places such as Fage Yogurt in Johnstown.
“In an area that’s seen the loss of so much manufacturing,” he said, “dairy is one industry that’s doing well.”
Considering dairy’s economic impact, Ammerman was pleased to see the farm bill break loose from a two-year gridlock Wednesday to be passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill still has to pass the Senate, but Ammerman said Farm Bureau officials are hopeful.
He said the bill’s proposed farm subsidies would benefit New York dairy farmers, even more than farmers in other major dairy states.
Dairy is traditionally a volatile market. Milk prices are set at the federal level, so when the price of feed goes up, farmers can go broke in a hurry.
The new bill, should it pass, would put into place a form of margin insurance. That insurance would guarantee farmers gross at least $4 per 100 pounds of milk produced, kicking in every time the price of milk and cost of feed narrow.
That baseline insurance is nearly free, Ammerman said, but farmers could pay into the program to get additional coverage over the lean years.
Farmers with 120 cows or less get a sort of discount on that additional coverage.
“The average dairy farm in New York is 120 cows,” Ammerman said. “So we are better suited to this bill than the other major dairy states.” The largest and second-largest producers, California and Wisconsin, have significantly larger dairy farms on average, which will cost more to insure.
Ammerman said such a program would stabilize the state’s whole dairy industry, keeping farmers in business during lean times, but Dygert will take some convincing.
“As soon as the government steps in, things get really complicated,” he said. “It’s better to just save when times are good so you’re prepared for when they inevitably go bad.”