Milk producers turn to technology to boost efficiency

The 330 milk cows on the Kessler family's dairy farm near St. Louis literally ride a merry-go-round -- an automatic turntable that allows for a nonstop milking operation starting at four every morning and again at four in the afternoon, seven days a week.

With the Reagan administration's success in winning congressional approval for reduced dairy price supports, the Kesslers plan to start spinning this merry-go-round faster than ever. Lower government price supports will mean that it takes more production to cover the farm's escalating costs for fuel, animal feed, seed, fertilizer, new equipment, and labor.

Like most dairy farmers, the Kesslers weren't surprised when Congress voted down the price support increases scheduled for last April. They were, in fact, well prepared for that cutback. In February they installed the latest state-of-the-art technology in dairy farming: a $70,000 computerized system for individually regulating the grain fed to each cow. Already the new system is cutting feed costs and should increase milk production once the cows adjust to the change.

Eldest son Tom Kessler is in overall charge of the milking operation. He decided the new, computerized Herd Master Management System would pay for itself by metering out expensive feed to match precisely each cow's needs. Now Tom knows his cows by name andm computer number, so that he can check the midnight printout which lists cows that haven't eaten their programmed daily ration of feed.

The key to this system is a plastic transponder hung around each cow's neck. This identifies each cow electronically, allowing her to duck into any one of the farm's 10 automatic grain feeding stations for her own ration.

One of the farm's two hired men works full-time as a mechanic just to keep the farm machinery operating. Even so, the Kesslers will probably be buying new equipment regularly. With their new computer installed, they'd like to upgrade their present slurry system and add another giant, glass- lined silo. Each improvement adds to the farm's efficiency, productivity, and long- term profitability.

But the Kesslers say such needed improvements depend on "getting 80 percent of parity." This refers to the complex government formula designed to prop dairy prices up to a level that gives farmers a set percentage of the return received for their products in the base 1910-1914 period.

The parity system relies on government purchases of enough surplus dairy products to prevent oversupply from reducing prices below the parity level fixed by Congress. Congress now plans to reduce the parity floor from 80 percent to 75 percent in October, with provision for dropping to 70 percent if the estimated net annual costs of the dairy program top $500 million, or if estimated federal purchases top 3.52 billion pounds.

Francis Kessler sees trouble in 75 percent and possible disaster in 70 percent of parity. As a dairy farmer who began milking his father's cows by hand on this farm in 1939, Mr. Kessler knows how long it takes to build up a productive dairy herd. He warns that despite current oversupply, "If this county had a catastrophic year or just two bad years in a row, we could have serious shortages."

In Kessler's view, the government dairy price support program, which cost $1. 3 billion last year, has been a good investment all around. On the one hand, it enables dairymen like the Kesslers to pay for needed improvements. The investment also helps maintain a large enough dairy industry to protect US consumers against a short supply situation, which would send supermarket dairy prices skyrocketing.

With 75 percent of parity ahead, and the prospect of 70 percent, the Kesslers are going to ride out the storm by making themselves, their cows, and their equipment all work harder. In part, says Tom, this means "more tender loving care" so that more of his cows will increase production from their present 50 pounds of milk (or six to seven gallons) a day, to the 140 pounds a day that the farm's best cow gave 10 years ago.

But Tom's overall answer to the farm's narrowed profit margin is to switch the entire herd over to milking three times a day -- which will mean three five-hour sessions in the milking parlor each day, rather than just two.

Along with any other businessman, Tom Kessler wants to increase his return on investment, which in the case of the farm's 330 cows alone represents $660,000. So he plans to milk three times daily to increase his farm's output of 2,000 gallons of fresh milk daily.

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