Expanding drought conditions across the nation threaten continual year-over-year gains in U.S. milk production.
Extreme to exceptional drought in California has certainly caught the attention of the news media and the dairy industry, but the Golden State is not the only major dairy state suffering from drought conditions this year—and the situation is worsening. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, the area covered by moderate or worse drought increased nearly 5 percentage points to 36.8 percent in March.
Much of the West— Arizona, California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas—is mired in severe to exceptional drought. And the Great Plains and parts of the Upper Midwest including Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and several states east of the Mississippi River are battling moderate drought to abnormally dry conditions.
“Last year, the vast majority of states east of the Mississippi River had more than adequate moisture,” says Mary Ledman, dairy economist with the Daily Dairy Report and president of Keough Ledman Associates Inc., Libertyville, Ill. “The key milk-producing states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont are much drier today than they were a year ago.”
The latest drought monitor shows nearly all of Minnesota along with most of the northern half of Wisconsin is in a moderate drought.
“Minnesota and Wisconsin both posted year-over-year milk production gains in excess of 4 percent in February 2015, based almost entirely on greater milk production per cow due to high feed quality and favorable weather,” says Ledman. In March, Minnesota output was still running more than 4 percent higher than the previous year, while Wisconsin’s gain had slipped to 3.6 percent.
“The expansion of drought conditions across the United States possess a threat to continual year-over-year gains in U.S. milk production, which have already shrunk from 4.3 percent in September 2014 to 1.2 percent in March 2015,” she says.
Culling has already started to pick up and could accelerate if forages get too pricey or difficult to find, particularly in the drought-stricken areas of the country.
For first-quarter 2015, dairy producers had culled 25,700 more cows than in the comparable period a year ago, but first-quarter culling was far from uniform across the United States. Culling in the key western states of California, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington was up 27,200 head compared to last year, followed by the region that contains Texas and New Mexico, with a 19,500-head year-over-year increase.
“Meanwhile, dairy culling in the regions that include Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, where forage supplies and quality are good, trailed last year by 34,800 head in the first quarter of the year,” says Ledman. “This helps to explain significantly stronger year-over-year milk production gains in the Upper Midwest.”
If drought intensifies in the Upper Midwest, however, the situation could rapidly deteriorate.
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