Profitability, Viability, and Sustainability of Pasture-Based Dairy Farms: The Southern Dairy Sustainability Network

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2021: $79,737.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2024
Grant Recipients: Mississippi State University; Alcorn State University
Region: Southern
State: Mississippi
Principal Investigator:
Jamie Larson
Mississippi State University


  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Education and Training: networking, workshop
  • Sustainable Communities: quality of life

    Proposal abstract:

    Over 90% of Mississippi dairy herds are pasture-based and many are struggling to remain viable and profitable. The future of these individual farms, and the southeastern dairy industry in general, depends on producers finding ways to improve their practices. Dairy farms are less common and more geographically spread out so many agents lack dairy knowledge and experience. This project will allow us to conduct train-the-trainer workshops to educate Extension agents on how to assess a dairy farm through records, testing, and livestock evaluations (animal and nutrition) so they can better help their dairy clients. These in-depth and hands-on workshops will take a systems approach to cover proper management and troubleshooting of the following areas: pastures, nutrition, reproduction, health, welfare, and heat abatement. To continue educating agents, we will create the Southern Dairy Sustainability Network (SUSTAIN). SUSTAIN will be a regional educational and networking tool and website for Extension agents and dairy producers to 1) access a wide breadth of information and resources all in one website location and 2) rely on each other’s experience related to pasture-based dairy farming through discussion boards and a series of recorded video interviews called Pasture Perspectives. Between the train-the-trainer workshops and SUSTAIN, we intend to provide education and experience to county Extension agents who can then help their dairy clients improve their operations from a sustainability, profitability, and survivability perspective.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Objective 1: Provide train-the-trainer workshops for Extension agents on the economics and proper management of dairy cattle and forages for pasture-based dairy farms. Many dairy farms are in areas without surrounding dairy farms and thus the Extension agents in those areas are typically not dairy-focused. The goal of this objective is to educate agents and practice applying their newfound knowledge so that they are better equipped to help their dairy clients. These in-depth and hands-on workshops will take a systems approach to cover proper management and troubleshooting of the following areas: pastures, nutrition, reproduction, health, welfare, heat abatement, and records. These topics are of utmost importance to pasture-based dairy producers because all of them control the economic viability and sustainability of the farm. Workshops will cover the same topics and be presented in different areas within the region to reach as many county agents as possible. However, workshops will be altered as needed, based on feedback from the participants in each preceding workshop. We will strive to continually improve knowledge transfer and participant experience with each iteration. The expected outcomes of this objective are 1) county agents with dairy knowledge and experience; 2) increased collaboration between county agents across the region so that they have a wider network with which to rely on; 3) improved trust between county agents and dairy producers by showing dairy producers that their county agents want to learn about dairy farming and help them; and 4) improved dairy operations in the southeast through on-farm evaluations from both the agent and the project team.  Knowledge acquired through these trainings will allow Extension agents develop more targeted information and guidelines to dairy producers with unique dairy situations and extend those skills to a broader based clientele that emphasize both technical information and practical skills training.

    Objective 2: Create the Southern Dairy Sustainability Network (SUSTAIN), a regional educational, outreach, and networking website and social media platform. The goal of SUSTAIN is for Extension agents and dairy producers to access information and rely on each other’s experience related to pasture-based dairy farming. This network will benefit agents with any level of dairy knowledge, including those who do specialize in dairy. It would expand the reach of dairy-focused Extension agents and specialists who can utilize SUSTAIN to help educate agents and producers outside of their geographical area. Dairy-focused agents and specialists likely care that the dairy industry remains sustainable in the southeast and thus will want to help their counterparts in areas with dairies but without dairy-focused agents. Extension agents not well-versed in dairy can learn from this website and apply that information to clients in their own counties. Likewise, producers can rely on each other to problem solve in a digital version of calling on a neighboring producer for advice and help. To help spark discussion and idea sharing, we will include interviews with producers called Pasture Perspectives. These video-recorded interviews with successful and progressive producers can highlight certain innovations or techniques that have helped improve some part of their farm, feature farm progress, or provide general insight into what they have found works or does not work well on their farm. Researchers, Extension professionals, industry publication journalists, and industry representatives (e.g., field nutritionists, artificial insemination technicians, milk cooperative field representatives) can contribute science-backed results and reasoning while learning from the producers’ experience to better understand the application of their recommendations. Objective 2 will provide a network of resources to assist dairy producers in becoming more sustainable by preserving and managing their natural resources, but at the same time ensuring economic return. The expected outcomes of this objective will be to align, connect, and progress the southeastern dairy industry to be more sustainable, competitive, and profitable. First, we will align regional sustainability programs. We will connect state and regional producers under one network umbrella to improve recommendations and solutions to specific and common problems.  Finally, the implementation of this collaborative and focused network will accelerate the exchange of ideas and solutions in both research and extension to broaden technology transfer.


    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.