May 26 2017 09:15 AM

Are challenges that face dairy farmers the same as two decades ago?

Searching for a reflective topic, I decided to browse the Hoard’s Dairyman archives from late May and June from 20 years ago. What were the issues of 1997?

I was surprised to see the first Opinions, Brickbats, and Bouquets letter from a reader addressed Canada and the issues surrounding free trade agreements. The current U.S. dairy product trade discussions with our northern neighbors are not new.

Ironically enough, there was a story about 200 dairy producers who lost their market for milk in New York when herds failed cleanliness inspections. While the reason for loosing a milk market is not the same as in 2017, the fact is that producers have lost their markets before.

Twenty years ago there were a few herds averaging 100 pounds of milk per day on 3x milking. This featured herd was in North Carolina where they fed molasses, maltage (custom brewers by-product), corn silage, cottonseed hulls, as well as having pasture access. They administered BST. While their ration and management style may not be what you see from your window today, those high production levels were around decades ago. Now we have even more tools and technology to push the efficiencies on farms even higher.

Speaking of technology, only half of dairy farms owned a computer and 20 percent had internet access. Today, it is not if they own a computer, but how many, and in what form — desktop, tablet, or mobile. We are a business on the move and our information needs to be accessible where we are.

While organic production may be seen as a more recent trend, Hoard’s Dairyman was profiling organic operations in 1997. Editors interviewed a 200-cow herd in Oregon and the challenges they faced transitioning to organic. Obtaining organic feed was, and still is, a major consideration for organic producers.

Consumers and how each one makes dairy food purchasing decisions were full-page topics. New research had been conducted showing their buying habits. One finding really caught my attention. “The reason for buying milk is different than the reason for buying cheese,” the article stated. I thought about that line for a while.

As farmers, we produce one dairy product — milk, but it becomes dozens of items that consumers can select. We need to rely heavily on the knowledge of the dairy food scientists and marketers of ice cream, sour cream, flavored milks, cheese, and the multitude of other products to understand how to maximize the taste, awareness, and ultimately sales of our diverse product lines. Today, this includes on-the-go products and snack-size options, as we continue to deal with a perishable product.

Our industry continues to evolve, but the core of our issues seems to be ever-present — our milk markets, our management, and our consumers.

Patti Hurtgen

The author is the online media manager and is responsible for the website, webinars, and social media. A graduate of Modesto Junior College and Fresno State, she was raised on a California dairy and frequently blogs on youth programs and consumer issues.