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Although veteran Mississippi dairyman and university professor Bill McGee sold off his milking operation several years ago, he and family members continue to raise high quality Holstein cows for a north Mississippi dairy operation. At any given time, the McGee farm near Starkville, Miss., will have about 400 animals, ranging from young calves to two-year-old heifers.
Genetic markers help select top milk producers
“Now, bulls can be tested in the lab to determine if their genetic profile contains markers for producing daughters that will have high milk production. With these genetic marker profiles, bulls can be more accurately selected, reducing the number of bulls that need to be sampled.”
During his decades in the dairy sector, Bill has seen what was once a thriving industry continually decline.
“When I came to Mississippi State University in 1954, this county had over 100 Grade A dairies and was known as the ‘Dairy Center of the South.’ The university had a dairy herd and operated an extensive dairy breeding and research program. They also had a processing plant where they made all kinds of products, including cheese and ice cream.
“There was a huge Borden plant not far from the campus that bought Grade C milk — all the sweetened condensed milk for the South was processed there.
“Almost every farm in this area had a dairy and there were hundreds of them around the state. Today, there’s only one commercial dairy left in this county, plus the university’s dairy herd and processing plant, and statewide there are now probably well under 200 dairies. As was the case with us, quite a few operations didn’t start back up after Hurricane Katrina.
“A few of the dairies here converted to beef cattle, but in this area now, it’s mostly subdivisions or other residential land.”
Like most other facets of agriculture over the years, Bill says, dairy farmers had to get bigger in order to spread costs and stay profitable.
“Over time, a lot of them just got out. The entire Southeast is now a milk-deficit area; the really large production is in California, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.”
In 2009, Mississippi ranked 40th in the U.S. in milk production, 37th in the number of milk cows, 47th in milk output per cow, and 36th in the number of licensed dairy operations. There were only two operating milk processing plants in the state, at Kosciusko and Hattiesburg.
Another factor contributing to the decline of dairying in the South, Bill says, “is our brutal summers — the heat and humidity are really tough on dairy cows.”