Like any agribusiness sector, dairy farming in Florida has its rewards, its challenges and its vulnerabilities to a volatile market. “But most of all,” says Matt Lussier of the Florida Dairy Farmers organization, “the state’s dairy industry has deep roots with farms that go back generations. It is, indeed, a family affair.
“Overall, the industry here is extremely well-established,” says Lussier, owner of a dairy farm in Alachua County. “The typical dairy farm is a family-run operation that has been around for a good, long time.”
Florida has around 130 active dairy farms containing some 123,000 cows that produce approximately 277 million gallons of milk each year. The state ranks first in the Southeast and 19th nationally in dairy production. Lafayette and Okeechobee are Florida’s leading dairy counties with 40 farms between them.
“I think the dairy industry in Florida is in real good shape,” Lussier says. “We’re having a challenging year, but that’s nothing new to us. It’s the nature of the beast in that you’re going to ride the volatility of the markets.
“The dairy industry is very volatile. You see wide swings in milk prices. The price of feed has roller-coastered in the past few years. The average dairy buys the majority of its feed, so they’re probably more market-dependent than the guy that raises his own.”
Welfare Of Animals
A consistent trait defining Florida dairy farms is healthy animals. For a couple of reasons, Lussier says, farmers go to great lengths to ensure the well-being of their cows.
“One reason is you can’t work with these animals day in and day out, the amount of time we put into them, without loving cattle,” he says. “You really have to admire the cow and you have to be invested in their well-being. And dairy farming isn’t an occupation, it’s a lifestyle.”
Economics is the second motivator of animal care.
“I’m a numbers guy, and it’s been proven time and time again that the better that cow feels, the better she produces, and the better economic return you’re going to get.”
Dale McClellan, owner of M&B Products in Tampa and lifelong dairy farmer, pays special attention to the comfort of his cows while also lessening his operation’s impact on the environment.
“We work hard at our dairy farm to make our animals comfortable while protecting the environment,” says McClellan, adding that M&B built a modern, environmentally sound dairy in Lecanto. “We have free-stall barns for our cows to live in, and we do all that we can to make those barns comfortable.”
M&B recently installed a 3.3 million-gallon wastewater tank to help control irrigation.
“It enables us to go for long periods of time without watering, and not irrigate with fresh water or use fresh water to flush our barns,” McClellan says. “We use recycled water to flush the barns. It has really helped us.”
M&B, especially known for its fat-free, sugar-reduced chocolate milk shipped to schools, is finding innovations in not only its barns, but in its kitchens, as well. The operation has recently begun production of a fresh yogurt that is frozen and then distributed to schools, where it can be thawed and served as a dessert.
When it was recently tested, McClellan says he had “never had anything so well received, not even close.”
One of Florida’s older dairy operations is Miami-based McArthur Dairy. It has been in business since 1929, and is considered the leading dairy brand in South Florida. It distributes products to a variety of markets, including some 30 islands in the Caribbean.