County turns to lawmakers for dairy herd preservation

Friday, February 27, 2009

Marshall County leaders have refocused their efforts toward state lawmakers to save the state dairy farm at New Lake Road.

That's because on Monday night two officials from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture told the County Commission that Jersey milk cows should be moved to Spring Hill and a heifer research and development program ought to be started here.

UT's message was expected. Dr. Joe DiPietro, UT vice president of agriculture, and Dr. Bill Brown, dean of UT AgResearch, explained state budget cuts prompt the recommendation that will require final approval by the state legislature.

"If we want to save this experiment station, we'll have to go through the Legislature," Commissioner Tony White said at the close of the monthly commission meeting. "That's pretty obvious with what we've been told."

White is a member of the county's Agriculture Committee and has pursued this issue with County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, a former president of the local Farm Bureau who called state Rep. Eddie Bass and state Sen. Bill Ketron on Tuesday.

"They're in support of the herd staying in Marshall County," Liggett said Wednesday.

Founded in 1929 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the UT Dairy AgResearch and Education Center has an international reputation. Dairy scientists from the former Soviet Union came here to learn American dairy farm practices last spring.

DiPietro and Brown, however, contend it's more efficient to milk the Jerseys at UT's Holstein dairy farm at Spring Hill and to restructure the center here for dairy and beef heifer development so UT scientists can study animal growth, health, stress and reproductive efficiency.

Jersey heifers would stay here and Holstein heifers would e moved here, the UT administrators said.

"The health and development of young, never-bred female calves, called heifers, and overall herd reproduction efficiency are important economic drivers for a thriving livestock industry," a UT press release says.

"Beef heifers from other AgResearch and Education Centers across Tennessee could be moved to Lewisburg for research projects," UT states. "Collaborations with Tennessee livestock producers can be established for beef heifer development projects."

As promising as that might seem, it was not explored during comments from commissioners an more than a dozen area residents attending to show support for the facility and friends who are seen as in jeopardy of losing their jobs. While that's to be kept to a minimum, DePietro started with bad news from Wall Street, $7.1 million in cuts across UT and $2.1 million from agriculture research. Some 105 jobs may be cut from the Institute for Agriculture.

Brown understood from UT's meeting with the Farm Bureau here that while there's support for the experiment station here, there's "a stronger commitment to the herd" in opposition against breaking up the herd to preserve its genetic lines.

White asked about changes to buildings to accommodate the cows and Brown replied that would be required, but that about $370,000 would be saved on a recurring basis in operating costs and salaries because of the proposed move.

"In four days, I got 1,200 signatures from people against that from happening" White said.

Brown replied, "This has been a difficult decision" for someone like himself with his background in agriculture research, "but ... it's the right decision."

With 1,200 acres at the Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Spring Hill, compared to 600 acres here, Brown said. "There's a broader array of activity at the Middle Tennessee Center," he said. UT's press release listed beef cattle, agronomic crop, ornamental and fruit programs at Spring Hill.

Furthermore, he said, the dairy operation has been operating at a loss.