During the eight years that i have been writing this column, many changes have occurred — in the Midwest where I practice; nationally, and even internationally. I have applauded some of these changes, while bemoaning others. But regardless of how each of us feels about these changes, we all must learn to speak up for our industry to be successful going forward. 

Not an island

What has become clear to me is how much more interconnected our local and national industry is with the international dairy sector, and with society in general. For example, the price of milk in Illinois is strongly influenced by the demand for whey protein in China. And a producer’s decision of whether or not to use rbST is affected by the perception of a mother buying groceries in Cleveland.

The forces of globalization, trade, consumer preferences, economic consolidation, environmental contamination, and animal welfare are all impacting the dairy industry in a major way. And, as our dairies are buffeted by these forces, most of us are preoccupied with getting everything done and planned for our farms or farm clients. Rarely do we have time to think about — much less communicate — our opinions and questions about how these larger forces impact our industry.

Ultimately, our ability to ensure a healthy herd depends on a fair price for our product. And that, in turn, depends on a strong retail and wholesale market. As an industry, we all have a vested interest in enhancing our image to the consumer, developing new markets and preserving existing ones.

Caught in the crosshairs

Look at rbST. Some consumers prefer to buy milk that is produced without any artificial enhancement, and we have milk cooperatives and bottlers wanting to either preserve or enhance their market share by appealing to this sector. Some have mandated that a technology approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cannot be used.

It is difficult for me to believe that in most markets there is not room for milk from both rbST-supplemented and unsupplemented herds. Under this scenario, some milk sales would be driven primarily by price and others by a perceived enhanced value.

I do think, as producers, we need to be more connected to the realities of marketing and sales of our finished product. We need to be sympathetic to our allied organizations and businesses that market our final product. But, at the same time, we must stand up and communicate the realities of our dairy farm business clearly, effectively and fairly.

Our industry will increasingly be at the center of the societal debate about how and where we want our food produced. The health of our herds and our industry depends on all of us having a voice in that debate — and then taking the time to communicate it to our industry, political leadership and the consumers we meet. We all need to find the time to do that.

After some reflection, I have decided to step down as a regular columnist, with this being my last column. The opportunity to share ideas and insights with each of you has been an extraordinary experience for me. I thank Dairy Herd Management for the opportunity (and my editors for making my published columns better than my drafts). If you are ever in northern Illinois, stop by and say “hello”.

Brian J. Gerloff is a veterinarian and operates Seneca Bovine Services in Marengo, Ill.