Despite the challenges from unpredictable weather, high operation costs and potential for diseases, among other factors, Virginia’s beef and dairy cattle industries appear to be on solid footing.
That’s the assessment from officials at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“We’ve got a solid group of producers with a history of operating multigenerational family farms,” says Dr. Richard Wilkes, state veterinarian with the VDACS, “and from that perspective, we’re very strong within all the pressures that everyone has at this time.”
The cattle and calves industry is the second largest in the state, according to 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, with cash receipts of $373 million.
“There are the high input costs from feed and fertilizer that make the profit margins more narrow,” Wilkes says, “and, of course, we face all the weather stresses that everyone else has. But with our diverse climate, we’re kind of blessed, compared to states like Kansas or Texas. When they’re dry, they tend to be dry all over. But it’s unusual for us not to have at least a wet spot or two even in a year with a drought.”
Virginia’s cattle industry has also not had diseases such as bovine brucellosis and cattle tuberculosis. Wilkes attributes that to VDACS programs in place and industry leaders’ support.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t need to continue to be vigilant,” he says, “to be certain that we don’t develop a disease problem, and if we do, we identify it quickly and respond to it efficiently.”
Perhaps the industry’s top concern is the fact that farmers and owners are getting older and, as a result, an increasing amount of farmland is being sold to developers.
“The pressures of land value and land use do make farmland more and more valuable and susceptible to development,” says Jason Carter, executive director of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association. “Beef production is a land-extensive operation.”
The VCA helps promote the state’s beef business and animal agriculture, and in recent years, it has also played an important role as an advocate for the industry in legislative circles and on policy issues.
“We have a strong membership,” Carter says, “and we’re looking to continue to evolve our services.”
The dairy industry in Virginia is also in good shape, accounting for an estimated $960 million in economic activity in 2011, according to USDA statistics. Milk is the state’s third-largest agricultural commodity.
VDACS also contributes to growth in both beef and dairy, through its livestock marketing services and dairy services.
In the efforts to promote the state’s strong future in the beef and dairy industries, Virginia Tech has an extensive dairy science program, for both undergraduate and graduate students. The school’s Dairy Cattle Center is located on 600 acres of land, with some 400 head of dairy animals.