Despite a small decline in the total number of dairy farms, total cows and milk per cow in Michigan have risen steadily. Producers added 78,000 cows during the last decade—a 25% increase in cow numbers, says Ted Ferris, professor of animal science at Michigan State University (MSU).
And milk per cow has climbed to near the top of the pack. Michigan is ranked third, behind just New Mexico and Arizona, at 24,116 lb. per cow in 2013.
With the strong growth in milk production, the concern is if processors can keep up, says Chris Wolf, professor of agricultural, food and resource economics at MSU. This growth provides a constant challenge for co-ops to find a home for all that milk. The addition of new plants and some planned plant expansions will help. Overall, the industry is optimistic about the future of dairying.
Strengths. Abundant water supply, great soils and a climate where both cows and crops thrive anchor the industry. Producers are innovative, progressive and quick to adopt technology. They work cooperatively with allied industry and regulators for the good of the industry. That’s how Breakfast on the Farm educational tours got started. The tours are one of a number of tools the industry uses to help the public understand where and how their food is raised on modern farms.
Michigan also has a "Right to Farm" law. Producers who follow the generally accepted agricultural and management practices receive protection from nuisance complaints, says Ferris. These generally accepted practices are reviewed annually to keep the guidelines up to date.
This cooperative spirit within the industry also means that regulations passed here deliver the intended protection and are workable on the farm.
Weaknesses. As cow numbers increase, producers will need more acres for manure management. Producers must always have enough spreadable acres to stay in compliance, explains Wolf. In some parts of the state, the population density could make this difficult.
Another potential long-term weakness is the reduction in state funding for higher education. This affects teaching, research and Extension programs at the university level.
Opportunities. Michigan producers have great proximity to several large population centers. That means fresh milk from Michigan can be delivered within a day to most of the East Coast.
Processing capacity in the state is on the rise. Dairy Farmers of America is building a new plant in Cass City, Mich. And several existing plants are planning to expand.
Families expanding to bring in the next generation account for most of the growth. Now that feed prices have moderated, some producers who had shifted more land to crop production might decide to shift back to dairy production. It’s all about the opportunity cost and which enterprise will provide the best return on your investment.
Threats. The state currently handles environmental regulation through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. If for some reason the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were to not recognize the legitimacy of the state program and push Michigan farms into their permitting system, it could lead to problems, Wolf says. Being a locally run program, there is a little more flexibility on how to meet a rule—as long as the rule is met.
Even this far north, immigrant labor plays an important role in production. The lack of a workable immigration policy is a big concern. So, too, is the continued funding decline for education and Extension programs, as well as the lack of federal funding for animal research.