Without electricity to produce milk, Mississippi dairy farmers and processors suffered significant, direct economic losses from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina that average an estimated $35,000 per farm.

Hurricane Katrina tracked through the middle of Walthall, Marion and Lincoln counties, the state's highest populated dairy counties. About 75 percent of the state's 230 dairy farms are located south of Interstate 20, and more than 50 percent of these farms are concentrated in the hard-hit counties near McComb and Brookhaven.

Bill Herndon, dairy economics specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, estimated losses and damages caused by Katrina to top $6 million. Lack of phone service and restricted travel limits the information coming from devastated areas, so that number could increase.

"The secondary impacts of Katrina on the Mississippi dairy sector will be much greater and could threaten the continued existence of this important industry," Herndon said.

The loss of electrical power forced many producers to dump the milk produced by their cows for four to five days. Mississippi's Dairy Fresh plant in Hattiesburg was without electricity and water and unable to process any milk for several days.

Since Katrina, several producers have sold their cattle and closed their dairy operations because of difficulty getting feed and their inability to milk the cows.

Wesley Farmer, extension dairy specialist, said producers immediately switched to generators when the hurricane took the power out. However, fuel was in short supply across the state, so producers in many cases had to scramble to find enough to keep their generators running.

"The first day, there was a lot of damage and trees on the highways, so the trucks couldn't come in to pick up the milk," Farmer said. "Some producers had to dump the milk because they didn't have the capacity to store more than two days' worth of milk."

Generators are only designed for short-term relief, and many producers found they could not run the generators to milk the cows and sufficiently cool the milk. That led to more dumping of milk. In addition, in many cases, overloaded generators created power surges that damaged the motors on milking equipment. 

Most dairy cows are pastured and come into a barn for milking. Farmer said he has heard reports of some cow injuries from falling trees or flying debris. No calculation has been made yet of the effect the stress of standing outside in the storm had on milk production. Some dairy cattle also may experience long-term health issues related to the storm.

Extension agricultural economist John Anderson cautioned that the total loss has not yet been tallied.

"As long as producers are still without power and their transportation and processing infrastructure is disrupted, losses will continue to add up," Anderson said.

Mississippi StateUniversity