Pennsylvania's milk producers face rising costs for feed corn

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Don't let the butter sculpture, the milkshake booth or the "Farm Show's Got Talent" contest fool you.

The Pennsylvania Farm show, which opened Saturday, may be a lot of fun, but farming in the Keystone state is serious business, bringing in $6.7 billion in annual receipts statewide. The state's 62,200 farms cover 7.75 million acres.

Milk production alone is a $2.34 billion business, with Pennsylvania dairy farmers' production at 1.2 billion gallons annually.

This year farmers producing that milk are under extra stress. The cost of the feed corn given to dairy cows, which was $2.50 a bushel just five years ago, now it is hovering around $7 a bushel. A bushel is generally about 56 pounds of corn.

The price tag has been driven up by two factors: the nation's use of corn to produce ethanol as a fuel additive and the midwestern drought that struck hard this summer and damaged crops.

When corn prices first spiked in the middle of the summer and the fall, Virginia Ishler, the dairy complex manager at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, said "a lot of guys were panicking."

"We were telling folks, you need to sit down and look at the numbers for your farm," she said.

Farming is not for the arithmetically challenged. There are costs of equipment to be factored into the reoccurring costs of fertilizer, seed and pesticides; veterinary care for the animals; and then, for those who do not grow enough to feed their animals, feed.

For every 80 pounds of milk a dairy cow produces, it eats 120 pounds of feed. That can add up.

At the Penn State barns in State College, Centre County, the university has 220 lactating cows. There are a total of 500 animals there, including the heifers and the animals that are not currently lactating.

Mrs. Ishler said the farm can go through 3,000 to 4,000 tons of corn silage in a year. Corn silage describes the whole plant, stalks and all, chopped up into feed. It costs $70 to $80 a ton. That does not include the cost of grain mix and hay, which the cows also eat.

"Dairy farmers, right now in the whole country, are having a struggle," Jim Marburger, president of Marburger Farm Dairy in Evans City, Butler County, said. Mr. Marburger does not grow all of the feed that his dairy needs.

He said he has trimmed costs by cutting down on some of the services he gets at the barn. Feed analysts who used to come every couple of weeks now come by once a month to see how the cows are eating. The dairy also used to have visits from the veterinarian every other week to check the herd, but now the vet comes by one a month, unless there is a pressing need.

Mr. Marburger said while feed costs are up, consumers are drinking about 5 percent less milk than they used to. "The economy is not good," he said. "It used to be it didn't bother the food, but it does now."

Mrs. Ishler said the good news right now is that milk prices are up some -- although the about $3.50-a-gallon price that milk sells for in the store doesn't reflect what the farmer actually receives.

Prices for consumers could have spiked even higher if Congress had gone over the so-called "Dairy Cliff" but a bill on farm subsidies was passed last week.

Tim Sturgeon, a dairy farmer in Fombell, Lawrence County, always has the latest price of milk in the notebook he keeps in his back pocket. In December, he said, it was selling for $22.31 for every hundred pounds, or about $1.11 a gallon. Mr. Sturgeon said his family grows all of the feed they need for their 125 milking cows.

Wayne Frye, of Salem Township, Westmoreland County, who owns Hopeway Dairy, said the high feed prices have not affected many of the farms in his area because farmers tend to keep manageable herds that they can grow enough corn to feed.

That's not true statewide, said Mrs. Ishler, the dairy complex manager at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, "Some guys have been selectively culling their herd so they can match the number of cows to the feed available."

The Pennsylvania Farm Show, which runs until next Saturday at the Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg, is more than a celebration of the state's dairy industry, of course.

Mushrooms -- those little white button mushrooms -- were the second largest agricultural product in the state and Pennsylvania is the largest mushroom producer in the country, growing four times the volume of second-place California.

The state's growers produced 548.8 million pounds of mushrooms in the 2010/2011 season, which equates to $487 million in sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pennsylvania's third largest agricultural industry is egg production. Chickens in the state lay 7.3 billion eggs, making that a $485.2 million industry.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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