Kentucky's dwindling dairy industry will get some federal help tackling a major cow health problem that affects milk production.
Six states in the Southeast, including Kentucky, will participate in a five-year, $3 million study of mastitis, an inflammation of the udder that is more prevalent in the South but can be reduced by proper herd-management practices.
The goal is to find out what works, what doesn't and how to get farmers in Kentucky and the other states to adopt these practices, said Maury Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council.
Mastitis "is one of the most expensive diseases that affects dairy producers, particularly in the Southeast," Cox said.
Here, farmers are faced with the challenge of hot, humid weather that stresses cows. Traditionally, many Kentucky dairy farmers would let cows lie in the shade, stand in ponds or go into creeks to cool off. But that provides the perfect environment for bacteria that cause mastitis to flourish, he said.
Now farmers are switching to different barn systems, including open stalls that incorporate fans and water misters, and more suitable bedding, such as sand rather than sawdust, he said.
Mastitis has been a major hurdle for Kentucky's dairy industry, which continues to shrink.
"We've got about 770 dairy producers in the state, and they average about 87 to 90 cows per farm," Cox said.
The state has lost 40 to 50 dairy farms a year in recent years.
The losses of dairy cattle have leveled off, with Kentucky holding steady at about 75,000 cows for the past couple of years, down from a peak of 265,000 in the 1960s.
That heyday was an era of small, mostly tobacco-dependent family farms with smaller cow herds.
Today's Kentucky dairies are larger, Cox said. And although the average milk production in the state is below the national average, some Kentucky farmers consistently get the same levels seen elsewhere. Last year, milk production in the state increased, Cox said, from 1.1 billion pounds to 1.12 billion pounds.
"What we have seen is a transition, particularly in the last few years, of processors and purchasers of milk looking to have longer shelf life, and overall better quality of milk. Kentucky dairy producers have responded."
Moving to better cow care and comfort, and better practices in cleaning and milking cows has made a drastic improvement in infection levels, he said.
Jeffrey Bewley, the University of Kentucky dairy researcher who will work on the study, said there are many reasons for optimism about Kentucky's dairy industry.
"Most of managing for mastitis centers around keeping cows clean and proper milking procedures," Bewley said. "Although some people argue that we cannot achieve low mastitis rates in the Southeast, we have many dairy producers in Kentucky who demonstrate this is very possible every day."
The lead institution for the study will be the University of Tennessee, working with UK, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, Mississippi State University and Virginia Tech.
Steve Oliver, assistant dean of UT AgResearch, said the Southeastern dairy industry is in serious trouble.
"Although the nation is experiencing a surge in milk and dairy demand, the Southeast has experienced a greater than 37 percent decline in total milk production," Oliver said. "Milk quality is also consistently the poorest of all the regions of the U.S."
Statistics show that more than two-thirds of the region's dairies have closed since 1995.
The study hopes to stem that decline, which is exacerbated by mastitis and related quality problems.
"We will be working with dairy producers directly to assess factors affecting their milk quality," UK's Bewley said. "And we will be developing user-friendly decision support tools to help producers understand the economics of mastitis decisions."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.