DALTON, Ohio — Nearly 600 dairy graziers and related industrymen attended the two-day North Central Ohio Dairy Grazing conference Jan. 25-26 at Buckeye Event Center in Dalton, Ohio.
In its ninth year, the conference is a draw for dairymen interested in taking advantage of grazing opportunities in Ohio, and in other states. Some dairymen have attended all nine years, some attend alternate years, and a good many register each year for the first time, said Leah Miller, event organizer and director of the Small Farm Institute.
“We’ve got veteran dairy graziers and dairy farmers, but we also have some that are new,” Miller said.
Many who get into grazing do so as a supplementary income, although some also rely on grazing for their primary income. She said there’s a lot to learn for new graziers, but plenty of resources, including the annual conference.
On Thursday, Jan. 25, a panel of dairy graziers tackled the all-important question of where grazing is headed in the unstable dairy market.
Eric Grim, a founding member of the conference, said he uses detailed budgets at the close of each year, to try to limit risk in the upcoming year. With all the hardships of the past year, graziers could actually be “sitting on the perfect storm,” he said, if they can drive their production costs low.
“This is as uncertain as its (dairy) ever been,” said Joel McNair, editor of Graze, a pasture-based producer magazine. McNair predicted farmers will need to see average milk prices of about $16 per hundred pounds, if the nation’s dairy is to continue at all.
“The next couple years, we’ve got to average $15-16 or you will have a complete dismantling of the United States dairy industry,” he said.
Graziers actually could be in a good situation for a tougher market, the panel members said, because of lower-cost investments and the potential to use a mostly natural resource: grass.
McNair said the dairy industry today is decidedly different than the past 30 years, and the next 30 will depend on operations that can sustain themselves, and control costs.
“Anybody who can put together a grazing farm that is truly productive, efficient in all ways, shapes and forms, has a real advantage to be cost-competitive,” he said.
Even though the market is bad, Holmes County dairy grazier Ivan Troyer said dairymen have a lot of opportunity, compared to other nations where quota systems control how much milk they can produce.
He challenged producers to “count their blessings” and realize the potential they have as U.S. producers.
“If we complain and fuss about low milk prices, are we using that time wisely?” he asked.
McNair said some dairy graziers have joined efforts to contact politicians and express their concerns at a national level, but he questions how productive it will ever be.
“The politicians are not going to do anything for you,” he said, other than maybe some short-term relief.
In the afternoon, Wisconsin dairy nutritionist Tom Weaver presented some “straight talk” about balancing cow nutrition, and preparing for topics like climate change, computers and politics.
Dressed in blue farm bibs, Weaver presented himself as a flat-footed, cowboy-type with a practical understanding of cow nutrition.
“I’m a firm believer that the best person on the dairy farm to do the dairy nutrition work is the farmer himself,” he said.
Weaver scrutinized computer-generated models that try to “predict” what a ration should be, or how a dairy farm should operate.
“Precision feeding models are not exactly all precision,” he said.
Weaver compared farmers to the Wizard of Oz movie, saying they’re all trying to reach the magical Wizard, who in truth, is not as magical or complicated as they imagine.
If farmers would “pull the curtain,” they would see through the decorations and advertising that has confused and led some astray, he explained.
Many dairymen have become like the Tin Man, he said, having lost their heart in the heartaches of a low market. But Weaver comforted the graziers, telling them not to lose heart and ensuring them their industry is an important part of dairy’s future.
Even though “computer models” show the most milk with large, total confinement systems, small dairy farms and graziers have the advantage of requiring fewer inputs, and the potential for a value-added product. That puts them in a good position.
He said he’s not against technology, but challenged farmers to consider the kinds that help them, and the kinds that hinder.
When it comes to balancing rations with a cow’s needs, “it really doesn’t take great sophistication,” he said.