Louisiana’s dairy industry continues to struggle. The high costs for feed, fuel and fertilizer have cut into potential profits. And while these costs have gone down somewhat this year, so have the prices farmers get for their milk.

“The cost of production has been higher than the price of milk,” LSU AgCenter extension dairy specialist Charlie Hutchison told a group of about 60 dairy producers gathered at a field day at the LSU AgCenter Southeast Research Station at Franklinton, La. ”We’ve been in a survival mode this year.”

“The profitability margins have been the lowest in history,” said Mike McCormick, coordinator and researcher at the station. “And we’ve lost some more farmers because of it.”

Louisiana is down to approximately 160 dairy farms, losing about 20 in the past year and several hundred over the past 10 years. Most of Louisiana’s dairy farms are concentrated in the southeastern corner of the state, north of New Orleans.

John Anderson, an agricultural economist from Mississippi State University in Starkville, said it appears prices will get better for the dairy industry in 2010. He said milk prices show some improvement, and the rise should continue as long as the overall economy continues to improve.

“The international dairy prices are high — especially in Europe,” he said. “The weak U.S. dollar, compared to other currencies, will help our exports go up,” adding that these are good indicators of improvement in prices.

Anderson also predicted feed prices would continue to be high but shouldn’t go higher.

A research goal at the Southeast Station is to help dairy producers hold down their feed costs and yet get maximum production. Researchers are testing rice bran as a cheaper alternative to cottonseed as a feed additive.

“We have lots of rice bran in the state, and the cost of cottonseed doubled a year and a half ago,” McCormick said.

Rice bran provides the necessary fat and digestible fiber for the cows, and they like it, McCormick said. So far, the researchers are finding it’s an acceptable substitute at moderate levels — no more than one-fifth of the grain portion of the cow’s diet.

Stephanie Hill, a dairy researcher at Mississippi State, told the group at the field day she is testing yeast as a possible way to reduce use of antibiotics in calves. Ingesting yeast can help rid their digestive systems of disease-causing bacteria.

“Yeast is commonly fed to mature cows,” McCormick said. “Its use with calves would be for health and not nutrition. And it would help prevent bacterial resistance to the antibiotics.”

Hill is also looking at the use of distillers grain, a byproduct of ethanol production, as a feed for dairy cows. Farmers can use it now, if it’s been tested and shown to be free of mycotoxins. One of the mycotoxins, aflatoxin, is a carcinogen and can cause cancer in humans.

To help prevent mycotoxins from getting into the milk, Hill is testing the use of new feed additives that bind the mycotoxins so the cow excretes them.

“There has been little research on the effects of mycotoxins in a dairy cow’s diet, and the current regulations are based more on guesses than sound science,” Hill said.

Hutchison reminded the dairy producers that for profitability, they need to carefully manage their feed and forage and not spend more money than necessary for the animals to get adequate nutrition.

One of the services at the station is the Forage Quality Laboratory. Both dairy and beef farmers send in feed samples to be analyzed for nutritional content.

Dairy farmers also must not hesitate to cull the low-performing cows from their herds, Hutchison said. He introduced a spreadsheet computer program, which some of the farmers are already using, to help analyze whether it’s cheaper to get rid of the cow or keep her in production.

“You have to keep records on every cow,” Hutchison said.

Another area of research at the Southeast Station concerns water quality. AgCenter scientists have set up a three-stage lagoon system to filter the waste from the dairy barns into a pond with water that is swimmable and fishable and can be used to irrigate crops and pastures.

This past year they added “islands” to the first lagoon in the system. The mattress-like “islands” are 8-foot by 10-foot and made of woven plastic. Forage crops likes oats and ryegrass are planted into the plastic. As these crops grow, they take in the nutrients from the waste in the lagoon, thus helping to clean the water.

“When the crops are ready to harvest, we drag the islands to the side of the lagoon,” said Vinicius Moreira, LSU AgCenter dairy researcher.

To conduct this three-year research project, he received a $39,000 grant from the Lake Pontchartrain Foundation.

This next year, Moreira will plant the same six islands, and for the third year of the project, he will nearly cover the lagoon with islands and test the effects on purifying the water.

Southeast Station field days are attended by dairy producers from both Louisiana and Mississippi. Because of an agreement established between the LSU AgCenter and Mississippi State back in 1992, both states benefit from research conducted at the station in Franklinton, La., and at the Mississippi State beef research station in Poplarville, Miss.

“This agreement saves both institutions money,” McCormick said. “Our producers in this area can benefit from Mississippi’s beef research, and Mississippi dairy producers benefit from the research we conduct here.”