Dairymen are American heroes

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Last month, I shared with readers of this column my deep admiration for the American farmer. This month, coincidentally the national dairy month, I need to disclose to you my other American heroes: America’s dairymen.

Sprinters vs. Marathoners

Farmers are like sprinters. There is a short window in springtime to do an awful lot of work: sprint, sprint, sprint, and the job gets done.

The summer season is not completely idle: more like a slow jog with constant worries about the weather — which is never perfect.

One week, the fields look too dry; then comes the rain, but too late, or too much, or too little.

Somehow, crops are nearly as resilient as farmers. So comes fall — there are acres upon acres of fields to harvest in a very short time: sprint, sprint, sprint, and the job gets done.

Dairymen are like marathoners. For them, there is seldom a big rush, but just the unrelenting, repetitive tasks to be done 24/7, year around: feed the calves, milk the cows, feed the cows, clean the parlor, scrape the barn, breed the cows, time to milk again, pull a calf, treat a cow, feed … time to milk again.

Like the marathoner, dairymen around the world must concentrate on taking the next step, and then the next one. And American dairymen are simply the best in the world at doing this. In the long run, very few can keep running and running like they do.

The good old days

To appreciate what American dairymen have achieved over the last few decades, I will contrast average productivity in 1944 vs. what was achieved last year, 70 years later.

In 1944, the average cow produced about 4,500 pounds of milk in a year. Last year, the average American cow produced 22,500 pounds of milk — a five-fold increase over 7 decades.

The national milk production in 1944 was about 117 billion pounds. Last year, the U.S. dairymen produced more than 206 billion pounds of milk — a 76 percent increase. To produce the 117 billion pounds in 1944 required around 25.6 million cows.

The 206 billion pounds that were produced last year required less than 9.3 million cows.

To put it differently, the dairy population required to produce 1 billion pounds of milk in 2014 was only 20 percent of that required in 1944, and environmentally much better.

Some might argue that this immense gain in productivity came with a substantial environmental cost. This thinking is not supported by data.

The dietary energy that was required to produce milk in 1944 totaled 16.7 billion megajoule of metabolizable energy. This compares to about 4 billion megajoule of metabolizable energy last year.

In fact, the carbon footprint per hundredweight of milk produced is now only about 35 percent of what it was in 1944. Technology, better cows, better feeds, better housing and better management has made the production of our milk far more efficient in physical terms, but also environmentally and economically.

My salute

So today, I raise my hat to the marathoners, all of you who keep supplying us with one of nature’s best foods.

All of you, whether you operate a big dairy farm or a smaller one, whether your cows are black and white or what we call of colored breed, whether you use pastures or confinement systems.

All of you are my American heroes.

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Normand St-Pierre is an Extension dairy specialist at Ohio State University. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.

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