Virginia generates 1.7 billion pounds of milk per year.
Though the dairy industry in Virginia is small compared to other states, the commonwealth produces 207 million gallons of milk annually, worth about $481 million according to the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association.
However, hot, humid summers add challenges to milk production in the region. Reduced milk quality results in increased production costs for farmers while decreasing revenues and sustainability.
Christina Petersson-Wolfe, associate professor of dairy science and Extension specialist, wants to help improve the quality of the state’s milk.
Petersson-Wolfe, working with the Southeast Quality Milk Initiative, is helping dairy producers in the commonwealth and the region compete more effectively by lowering bacterial counts in milk, thus commanding better prices in the marketplace. Virginia Tech has partnered with the University of Tennessee, University of Kentucky, University of Georgia, and University of Florida to implement the $3 million multistate project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Milk quality is commonly measured by the somatic cell count and standard plate — or bacteria — count. Most buyers in the region require the milk they purchase to have a somatic cell count of fewer than 400,000 cells per milliliter, but farmers strive to attain a count closer to 200,000.
Since the inception of the program, the average somatic cell count in Virginia has dropped 5.8 percent. These numbers can add up when dairy farmers receive their milk premiums — cash above and beyond the standard rate of about $17 per 100 pounds. Premiums can add up to thousands of dollars per month. One dairy farm that benefited from consultation with the milk initiative saw an increase of $8,640 per month.
“Our overall goal is to enable dairy farmers to move toward production systems compatible with a sustainable industry,” said Petersson-Wolfe.