Pa. dairy farmers optimistic about growing season

April 30, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Franklin County dairy farmers, buoyed by rebounding milk prices and a promising start to the growing season, are looking ahead to a good year.

Dairyman Carl Wenger of Pleasant Hall, Pa., said he is "optimistic that we'll have an average year weather-wise, and an outstanding year price-wise for milk. It was around $17 (per hundred pounds) last time I checked.

"But if history repeats itself, it won't last a long time," he said.

The wholesale milk price paid to the farmer had dipped as low as $12 per hundred pounds in mid-2003.

About 41,000 dairy cows live on 450 farms in Franklin County.

Wenger said he has planted 35 of the 200 acres of corn he plans to raise this year. He also seeded 20 acres of alfalfa hay this spring.


With 450 head of cattle to feed, including 225 which are milking, Wenger said he purchases corn in addition to what he grows.

Other farmers take differing approaches to manage expenses.

Titus Martin of Fayetteville, Pa., who put his 140 milk cows out to graze on orchard grass and clover on March 29, uses a system called managed intensive grazing.

Under that system, cows are rotated among small lots where they eat "like a lawn mower." They then are moved to another lot to graze while the previous lot regrows for two weeks.

"That's how you get good growth out of your grass," Martin said.

Martin farms about 180 acres, but he grows no corn.

"The bulk of the cows are on 122 acres, and we move them to other farms to graze. We're 100 percent grass," he said.

Gross farm income is not as high with that system, but the net is better because he is not investing in seed, fertilizer and spray for corn, Martin said.

By the weekend of April 24, Martin was feeding his cows only grass and grain. Before the pasture lots were sustainable, he also fed them grass silage.

Intensive grazing gives cows a "clean place to go to after every milking; it brings more milk to the tank," Martin said.

"We're not hauling feed to the cows and cleaning free stalls. We have more time to enjoy what we do. They harvest (the grass), digest it and bring us the milk twice a day," he said.

Milk output has increased since the cows are out on grass," Martin said.

"This is the time of year we live for."

Jere Wingert, agronomy and livestock educator for Franklin County Cooperative Extension, said farmers are planting corn and many of them have planted their spring alfalfa.

While some fields still have wet spots after the recent rains, most places have dried off fairly well, he said.

"Limestone ground you can get in; shale is wet yet in spots," Wingert said. "With the heat and the wind, some soil has dried out on surface. This is good for spring seeding.

"Things look good at this point," Wingert said.

While Franklin County has lost some family farms over the last several years, about the same amount of acreage is being farmed as five years ago, Wingert said.

"The farms are bigger, with more custom operators doing the planting and harvesting," he said.

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