HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) - Years ago, farmer Dennis Trissel specialized in one field: dairy farming.
These days, though, he also raises poultry on his Rockingham County farm, and sells farm machinery. The dwindling profit margin in dairy farming left him little choice but to diversify.
"You have to branch out," Trissel explained.
Dairy farmers are facing increasing hardships, Trissel said, including rising fuel and feed costs, fluctuating milk prices, government regulations and bureaucratic red tape.
And in an industry that prides itself on hard work and long hours, the life of a dairy farmer is particularly demanding.
Trissel said it's "labor intensive and it's management intensive."
As a result, very few young dairy farmers are replacing retiring farmers, Trissel said. What's more, the farmers that have remained in the dairy business are producing more milk today with the same number of cows - nearly three times as much as in 1960.
It's no wonder, then, that the number of dairy cows in Virginia is at a 50-year low.
"That number has done nothing but go down," said John Welsh, unit coordinator of the Rockingham County Cooperative Extension.
Virginia has a little more than a fourth as many dairy cows as it did in the middle of the 20th century. Many of those cows are concentrated in the central Shenandoah Valley. The state had 335,000 in 1960, but that figure fell to just over 95,000 in 2010, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The central Valley boasts more milk cows than any other area in the state. And with 22,000, Rockingham County has nearly twice as many dairy cows as the county with the second-highest total, Franklin, with 11,500.
Dairy cow numbers in the United States have dropped similarly in the last 50 years, according to the USDA.
Area dairy farmers say they face a variety of challenges. They say milk prices constantly fl uctuate, but the price of maintaining a herd continues to rise.
When the price of raising cattle doesn't meet the market value of milk, some farmers are forced to sell a portion of their herd to make up the difference, said Bob Threewitts, president of the Rockingham County Farm Bureau.
Rising costs make it more difficult for dairy farmers to stay in business, said Jerry Turner, a Page County farmer.
"The profit margin is just not there," Turner said.
Diesel prices in Virginia are currently $3.71 - most farm vehicles use diesel fuel - up from just over $1.50 10 years ago. The price of corn, which dairy farmers use for feed, has risen dramatically over the last year - up 75 percent from this time in 2010 - in large part because of the boom in ethanol production. Nearly 40 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. will go toward the production of ethanol this year, compared to just 6 percent 10 years ago.
Dairy farms need to change the way they do busi ness to survive, agricultural experts and others say.
And many of those who remain in the business have done just that. Some have trimmed herds to cut expenses, and others, like Trissel, have diversified, adding poultry and beef operations to their farms, or in Trissel's case, selling equipment.
Declining profits aren't the only reason for the falling numbers of dairy cows in the commonwealth, some say.
And yet, milk production in Virginia hasn't dropped at a corresponding rate with the decrease in cows. Production dropped from 2 billion pounds in 1960, to just 1.7 billion pounds in 2010, according to the USDA.
That has as much to do with advances in farming techniques than anything else.
While the number of milk cows in the commonwealth continues to decline, the remaining animals are producing more milk. A single dairy cow today produces roughly three times as much milk as it did in 1960, according to USDA statistics.
Farmers attribute the increase in individual milk production to new farming technology, and a greater understanding of how to make cows produce milk. That includes growth hormones, which have become a popular - and controversial - way to increase milk production. The injection of hormones and other supplements into dairy cows is anathema to environmental and animal-rights groups and the growing ranks of organic farmers.
But there's no arguing that it's allowed farmers to do more with less.
"Even with numbers down, we haven't lost that much milk," Welsh said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.