UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you attended the 2013 Ag Progress Days Aug. 13-15, you most likely went home with some new ideas.The annual show was packed full of educational sessions, legislative updates and in-the-field demonstrations.
Eileen Wheeler, Penn State professor of air quality, animal welfare and environment, updated producers on changes coming in the area of animal welfare.
She announced the formation of a new animal care resource center — which is one of three centers to be created through a partnership between Penn State and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
The center will focus on the biggest issues facing Pennsylvania livestock farmers, including the potential for changes in cages for laying hens, and maternity (gestation) crates for swine.
The center is also expected to address issues pertaining to veal production and the industry-led change to group housing for veal calves.
Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth largest dairy state and is third in egg production. Wheeler said it’s important to keep these industries strong, while addressing the issues of animal care.
She said the goals of the center will be to promote awareness of animal welfare perspectives, knowledge about opportunities for welfare solutions, to “tell animal agriculture’s side of the story,” and to “become the resource” for professionals in animal agriculture.
In a separate talk, Dan Kniffen, Penn State animal sciences professor, gave an update on the U.S. beef industry, which currently has the smallest cow herd inventory since 1950. Over that same period, the U.S. population has doubled.
The reasons behind the smaller herd include the high cost of grain for feed, the fact that higher grain prices have more cattle farms converting pastures to grain fields, and the overall cost of production.
Another factor is carcass size, which have steadily increased over the years, so that more beef is produced per animal than ever before.
And, although finished beef is selling at high prices — sometimes as much as $130 per hundred pounds — it’s having an adverse effect in the marketplace — where cash-strapped consumers are turning to other meats.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to see a lot of substitution for this product,” he said, because people are not in the position economically, to afford beef.
He estimated that after the current economic cycle, as much as 30 percent of producers will have ceased production. And, for those who have converted to crop farming, it’s doubtful they’ll go back to beef anytime soon.
“Once that ground gets converted and we’ve lost that infrastructure, and we’ve lost the fences and we’ve lost the water systems and so on, nobody’s going to go back in and put that stuff in,” Kniffen said. “They’re going to stay with grain production simply because it becomes easier to manage.”
Another popular venue was the Energy Exhibit Showcase, where nearly a dozen energy-themed discussions were held on opening day.
Rob Boulware, of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, talked about what’s happening in Pennsylvania as a result of shale gas drilling.
As drilling continues, he said industrial use of natural gas continues to rise, as well. The first natural-gas powered production tractor was announced in 2011, and Boulware said it’s scheduled to hit the market in 2015.
Natural gas is also benefiting milk and food processing companies like Ohio’s Smith Dairy, and the food and snack industry in Pennsylvania could greatly benefit as well, he said.
Boulware, who has a farm background himself, said natural gas is helping save the state’s family farms and, in many cases, is the only thing that has made them profitable.He said there have been “countless studies from individuals who have been able to extend the family farm” because of natural gas.
But his optimism about the industry was challenged by one Bradford County dairy farmer, who said her water has been contaminated as a result of the drilling.
“You are taking away what we depend on and take pride in,” said Carol French, who noted a white substance appearing in her farm’s water, and breeding issues with the cows.
Boulware said he couldn’t speak to that case specifically, but reiterated his point that natural gas “is an opportunity,” but one that must “be done in a responsible manner.”
He said Pennsylvania farms were already rapidly disappearing before the natural gas boom, and that without natural gas, or some other subsidy, many more will not be sustained.