Milk is an important commodity in county

June 16, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

June is National Dairy Month and is widely celebrated nationally.

It is the reason you see displays and promotions in your grocer's aisle for such things as cheese and ice cream.

As I have stated on many occasions in this column, Washington County is home to some 11,000 dairy cows, ranking it second in the state, and 150 dairy farms, ranking it first in the state.

At one point in our history, every farm had a few milk cows whose milk would be consumed by the family, with a portion processed on the farm into butter or cheese as cash crops to add to the farm's bottom line.


Today, however, most of the milk produced in the county is shipped over the mountain to be processed and jugged and shipped to supermarkets.

When you think about the dairy products that grace your table, such as cheese, yogurt, milk and ice cream, do you ever wonder about the size and scope of the dairy industry? Here are but a few examples:

o More than 10 pounds of milk go into one pound of cheese.

o U.S. cheese consumption is 31.3 pounds per capita.

o Cheddar is the most popular natural cheese in the U.S. (cheddar accounts for 9.39 pounds per capita or 27 percent pound share.)

o Super Bowl Sunday rates as the No. 1 day for pizza consumption. In second place, using huge amounts of cheese, is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

o The average buyer purchases cheese 15 times a year at retail.

o More than one-third of all milk produced each year in the U.S. is used to manufacture cheese.

o About 300 varieties of cheese are sold in the United States.

o Ice cream lovers drive U.S. production to 1.6 billion gallons of ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and other related products.

In the U.S., the major dairy animal is the cow, but the goat is the major dairy animal worldwide. In other countries, yaks, camels, horses, water buffalo and sheep are milked. Most of the milk from these animals is made into cheese or cultured products similar to yogurt, since most of these regions are also short on refrigeration.

So what about our friend the cow? The two most popular breeds in the U.S. are the Holstein (black and white) and the Jersey (brown). The rest of the major dairy breeds are Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey and Milking Shorthorn. A cow will weigh 1,000 to 1,400 pounds and produce 90 to 135 cups of milk per day. She has a four-part stomach that allows her to eat food that humans would be unable to digest. She will consume nearly 100 pounds of feed and 50 gallons of water per day.

Now to the dairy farmer. He milks his cows every day. Neither cows nor farmers take weekends or holidays off. As many farmers will tell you, it's not a job, but a way of life. However, it is also a business or the farming enterprise does not survive. As I write, farm gate milk prices are about the same as they were in 1976. I cannot think of one person that would stand still if they were paid what they were in 1976.

To help put this in perspective, in 1976, the minimum wage was $2.30 per hour and today it is $6.55, with a scheduled boost to $7.25 in July. One gallon of regular gasoline was 59 cents per gallon and now it is about $2.55. Milk in stores was $1.65 per gallon; today it is $3.49. You are probably asking yourself how a dairy farmer is to survive. Excellent question, for which there is no easy answer other than to hang on and wait for the market to rebound. The question is when will the market rebound and will anybody still be hanging on at that point?

The farm gate price of milk has literally dropped by half since last year, yet the price of milk in the store has not, so the question begs, do we truly operate in a free economy? These are the kinds of questions that make economists scratch their heads, too, I am sure.

With that said, in honor of Dairy Month and those folks who toil every day to bring you those delicious products, have a bowl of ice cream or strawberries and cream.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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