State's dairy farmers addresses low ranking

Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Henry Dowlen, head of the Dairy Education and Research Center, addresses attendees at the University of Tennessee Field Day last week.

Ken Givens, the Tennessee commissioner for agriculture, attended the University of Tennessee Field Day on March 26, at the Dairy Research and Education Center on New Lake Road, Lewisburg. About 50 milk producers from across the mid-state came to hear the speakers and have lunch.

"We were expecting a big crowd, but we got a quality crowd," said host Henry Dowlen, head of the facility known to many as The Experiment Station.

Jimmy Ogilvie of Caney Spring, a lifelong dairyman and president of the Farm Bureau, was there to hear about animal welfare. He had some trouble last year when a member of the public saw one of his cows calving.

Dr. Fred Hopkins, a UT professor, spoke on animal welfare. He pointed out that how the public perceives the farmer's ability to care for his animals is the important thing. The media often misrepresents or exaggerates the issues on which it is reporting.

Kristy Campbell contributed the golden rule of farmer's public relations: "Keep it clean and keep it pretty!" Hopkins warned producers that independent dairy welfare audits are coming in the not-too-distant future and they need to constantly be thinking about how their cattle and facilities would appear to an outsider.

Tennessee has 564 dairy farms in the state, 30 of those in Marshall County. Unfortunately, Tennessee's milk ranks lowest in the nation for quality. To address this, the Tennessee Quality Milk Initiative has been set up. Campbell spoke on the educational component of the initiative, the Tenneesse Quality Milk Producer certification. A total of 219 producers gained Level 1 TQMP certification last fall, 214 attained Level 2 this spring, and 208 farms sent milking personnel to a training session.

Why the drop in numbers? Tennessee has been losing milk producers at the rate of seven per month for the last seven years. The latest lost in Marshall County is Mickey Cantrell of Cornersville, who hopes to sell his land to Waste Management and got rid of his cows this week.

Producers need TQMP certification to qualify for the Agriculture Enhancement dollars that are on offer for improving herd genetics and upgrading facilities. More than 100 Tennessee dairy farmers have taken advantage of the program so far, and more are expected to apply this year, starting June 2.

Campbell said, "We want cows to eat, drink and make milk." To do that they have to have good quality food and water, and clean, comfortable places to lie down and rest. "Cows that rest produce more milk," she said.

The problem of feeding cattle during a period of drought and record high feed prices was addressed by Dr. John Bernard of the University of Georgia at the beginning of the field day.

Providers of goods and services to dairy farmers sponsored a buffet lunch after the speakers had finished. Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens evidently enjoyed eating and mingling with the crowd.

"He's definitely a spokesman for agriculture in Tennessee," said local extension agent Rick Skillington.