Dairy output still a major part of local economy

But county may drop one notch on top 10 report

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK | News-Telegram Managing Editor

Dec 19, 2007 - Hopkins County's dairy farmers are still among the most productive in Texas, but the dramatic rise of milking operations in West Texas is pushing the local ranking down a notch in the state's top 10 list.

Through the first 10 months of the year, Hopkins County ranks third in Texas among all counties in terms of milk production at just under 462 million pounds.

Erath County remains No. 1 in the state at 993 million pounds, while Deaf Smith County is second at 480 million.

In the latest monthlystatistics on Texas milk production released by the federal milk market administrator's office in Carrollton, Hopkins County was fifth in the state in October, behind Erath, Parmer, Deaf Smith and Castro counties.

Hopkins County's 125 farms produced 38.8 million pounds of milk in October, down 14 percent from one year before, while Erath's output was 91 million pounds. Parmer's was 59.8 million, Deaf Smith 50.38 million, and Castro 45.4 million.

For years, Hopkins County earned the official title of "The Dairy Capitol of Texas," by ranking tops in the state, with more than 500 small family dairies pumping out more milk than any other county in Texas. The natural rainfall of Northeast Texas provided producers the ability to grow their own forage, giving them an advantage over other areas of Texas.

That ended in 1989, when Erath County's large, corporate-style dairies took over the top spot. Erath's climate and soil were more conducive to milk production, and feeding higher and higher percentages of grain and high quality hay allowed the larger farms to produce more milk per cow.

Stricter environmental regulations also placed a heavier financial burden on Hopkins County dairies, while extremely low  prices and droughts put more pressure on the local dairy business.

Despite declining numbers of farms, Hopkins County stayed number two in milk production throughout the 1990s and each year this decade.

But this year, production started to drop off slightly in the spring, and it appears to be part of a trend that's affecting every dairy-producing area in the state except one: The Panhandle region of Texas.

Erath and Hopkins are the only two counties in the top five that are not located in the Panhandle, which has seen a dramatic rise in the number of cattle being milked in recent years.

Of the 10 geographic regions in Texas, the Panhandle area is the only one that has not seen a decline in dairy cattle populations in recent years. From May of 2005 to May of 2007, the total number of milking cows in the Panhandle region rose 28 percent, from 108,678 to 138,947.

The Crosstimbers region, which includes Erath County, saw a 20 percent loss, from 125,611 to 100,658. Northeast Texas fell the same percentage, from 64,450 cattle to 51,752 cattle.

There are several factors in the Panhandle's rise. The lower humidity is less stressful on cattle, and the minimal rainfall lessens the impact of environmental regulations by limiting the amount of runoff into water sources. The Ogallala Aquifer allows for irrigation, meaning producers can grow their own forage.

The Panhandle also has the biggest farms, while Hopkins County and the other counties in Northeast Texas have more family-style dairies.

For example, the Panhandle has more than half — 55 — of the 90 dairies in all of Texas that milk more than 1,001 cows. Only five of the Panhandle's 73 dairies have fewer than 500 cows.

Conversely, Northeast Texas has almost half — 193 — of the 407 farms in the entire state with 250 or fewer cows. In the region, there are a combined 255 dairy farms, but only three have more than 1,000 cattle, and only 21 have more than 500. One hundred and eight of the dairy farms in Northeast Texas milk 100 cows or less, according to data compiled by the milk market administrator's office.

Still, the average Hopkins County dairy farm is much larger than the mid 1990s, and the prices paid for milk have been higher than ever this year, underlining the tremendous impact the dairy industry continues to have on the local economy.

The Class IV price, for example, was $20.40 per hundred pounds on milk on Nov. 30, compared to $12.11 one year before.

Earlier this year, the mailbox price — a reflection of the actual price producers receive for their milk — averaged $21.47 per hundredweight, a record high.

At that rate, Hopkins County's milk output for this year should translate to $119 million in revenue, or an average of $952,000 per farm — virtually the same amount of income that 412 dairies produced in 1994.

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