MAYSVILLE, Ark. (AP) — The feeding barn at Valley View Farms was practically empty on a recent afternoon except for a few dairy cows receiving medication.
Normally, 300 cows stand on a concrete floor of the barn in Benton County eating a grain mixture all day.
Tim Crawley's cattle are spending more time out at pasture, and less at the feed trough, as the rising prices of agricultural commodities, such as corn, are increasing production costs.
Dairy farmers say the year's increases in costs are preventing some from benefiting from higher minimum milk-producer prices, so they're using grazing, state subsidies and other modifications to help turn a profit.
Average milk prices have been recovering since2009 when they bottomed out around $12 per hundredweight in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's southeastern milk-marketing order. A hundredweight, the dairyman's base unit of measurement, represents 100 pounds of fluid milk, which equals about 12 gallons.
Milk prices in recent months have been averaging about $20 per hundredweight, according to USDA data.
"It's a balance to maintain your profit margin and your costs," Crawley said. "You have to work on it all the time."
The pricing recovery is coming during a part of the season when pastures are lush and animals are typically put out to graze. Farmers say spring and fall are the best times for pasture.
While grass feeding helps reduce costs, it also lowers milk volume - and the milk paycheck, farmers say.
The pricing rebound is also encouraging farmers to produce more milk.
National data for April showed the national herd size grew to 9.19 million dairy cows, compared with 9.11 million dairy cows in the same period a year ago. As a re-sult, production rose 1.5 percent to 16.7 million pounds in April compared with the same period last year.
U.S. dairy prices are partly affected by the export market, which continues to experience strong demand from China.
The last time cows under Crawley's care grazed six hours a day was in 2009, when low prices for producer's milk affected dairy farmers across the country.
Typically his animals are restricted to the barn. Fewer than 10 Arkansas dairies operate under a strict confinement model where forage is brought to the animals, as Crawley's farm has operated, Arkansas dairymen recently said.
Instead, the feeding practice of a majority of the 125 grade-A-licensed dairies in the state is a combination of pasture grazing and a grain mixture that is fed in or outdoors.
In addition to using pasture more intensively, state producers also receive relief through an additional financial payment made available through the Arkansas Dairy Stabilization Fund.