Improving the Welfare of Southeastern Dairy Families Through the Adoption of Sustainable Production Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $294,409.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: University of Georgia
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Dennis Hancock
Univ. of Georgia

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: decision support system, extension, farmer to farmer, focus group, study circle, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: agricultural finance, budgets/cost and returns, new enterprise development, risk management
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, indicators
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    The sustainability of the dairy industry in the Southeastern U.S. is threatened. Most of the dairy farms in this region are conventional dairies with cows typically concentrated in a relatively small area and fed a diet of corn silage or other stored forages, and concentrated feeds. This system is very useful for maximizing milk production per cow and producing affordable milk for consumers when feed prices are low. However, numerous recent global and domestic events have led to sharp increases in feed and fuel prices and lower milk prices. The results have been disastrous with many dairies exiting the business. Unfortunately this trend is expected to continue as grain and fuel prices are expected to increase until 2017. It is imperative then that dairy families find ways to become more sustainable. This crisis has led to a renewed interest in pasture-based dairy systems. While overall milk production is typically lower in these systems, total overhead costs are generally much lower. These operations also report reduced labor, machinery and equipment requirements and face fewer risks from price volatility in feed requirements. This system is also viewed by many as being more environmentally sustainable and socially acceptable. It also lends itself well to marketing locally-produced value-added dairy products. Given these advantages, there is considerable interest by families with conventional dairies to change to more pasture-based systems. However, a lack of financial and technical information regarding these systems limits their adoption. This dire situation has led groups of both pasture-based dairies and conventional small to mid-size dairy producers to appeal to the University of Georgia and University of Florida for financial and production management assistance with hopes of becoming more sustainable. This multi-disciplinary project will assist Southeastern dairy producers in achieving their goal of becoming more sustainable. The objectives of this program are to: 1) work closely with individuals and groups of pasture-based and conventional dairy producers to identify production and financial management practices that will improve their sustainability, 2) establish a database of benchmark information for participating producers, 3) determine the relative profitability of conventional versus pasture-based dairying and 4) identify barriers to converting from a conventional dairy to a pasture-based production system. These objectives will be met by conducting annual financial benchmark analyses to assist dairy families in identifying key performance indicators. Periodic meetings will be held with dairy families to discuss practical ways to improve their financial sustainability. This benchmark information will be used to determine the relative profitability of conventional versus pasture-based as well as the key management practices of the top and bottom decintile of producers for both types of production systems. Developing a comprehensive survey of production and management practices. Current and potential dairy producers will also be surveyed to determine the financial, technical, cultural or other variables that impede their transition from conventional to pasturebased dairy systems. Information gathered from the benchmark information and survey will be utilized to develop educational materials and decision-aids that address these concerns.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    After assembling an advisory panel of grazing dairy families and others, we propose to:
    1. Collect, analyze, and report to dairy families financial and production benchmark information annually from 60 grazing and conventional dairy farms in Georgia and Florida. Results of this benchmark information will be used to help dairies compare their specific operation to the group, especially in certain key performance indicators (KPI) including production, profitability and labor utilization.
    2. Facilitate periodic meetings between groups of grazing dairy producers two-four times per year where participants share knowledge and questions as well as receiving information from university and other professional consultants.
    3. Document current dairy grazing and environmental stewardship practices in Georgia and Florida via a comprehensive and detailed survey instrument collecting production, management, and financial data of approximately 40 grazing dairy farms and 20 comparable conventional dairy farms.
    4. Use the annual benchmark data in conjunction with the comprehensive survey to identify practices or systems that are predictors of profitability, financial robustness, personal sustainability and environmental sustainability.
    5. Survey current conventional and pasture-based dairies in Florida and Georgia to determine impediments or barriers to current conventional producers adopting pasture-based dairying.
    6. Utilize information obtained in Objectives 1-5 to create and distribute printed and electronic educational materials for grazing dairy farms or for conventional farms that are considering switching to a pasture-based system. Examples of these materials include:

    a. Pasture-based dairy budgets.
    b. Computerized planning tools/decision-aids that help to evaluate what-if scenarios, and
    c. Extension fact sheets that discuss numerous economic and production facets of grazing dairy production. Some of the fact sheets will also cover items to address when considering converting from a conventional to a pasture-based dairy.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.