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Forum and wire reports, Published July 20 2010

While others are downsizing, NDSU to expand herds

While land-grant universities across the nation are forced to sell livestock due to rising feed, fuel and labor costs, North Dakota State University is doing the reverse.

With expanding research facilities, NDSU expects to increase the numbers of animals used for teaching and research.

“We’re actually holding the same and even increasing,” Farm Operations Manager Gerry Erickson said. “It looks pretty promising this year.”

Other universities in the country are looking for ways to cut costs during tight economic times, but NDSU has been able to stave off any price-based livestock cuts, crediting cost-saving measures such as raising feed instead of purchasing it and employing students.

“I think the reason we’ve done quite well is we stay pretty efficient,” Erickson said. “We know where every penny goes.”

NDSU has about 2,000 cows, sheep and pigs, as well as about 1,400 acres used to grow feed.

The school recently cut back the number of sheep due to space limitations, but other than that, numbers haven’t fluctuated much over the years, Erickson said.

Since last year’s dip in milk and hog prices, prices have rebounded. That on top of a good growing season, he said, have kept things stable.

That’s not the case elsewhere, though.

At the University of Vermont, the fields and long red barns will soon house fewer cows as low milk prices, high costs and budget cuts have forced the university to sell its herd.

The sales are taking place despite growing enrollment in agriculture programs. The herds are mainly used for faculty research.

The University of Vermont plans to sell its 255 Holsteins and have faculty do their work on private farms that could be paid $20,000 a year for three years, said Tom Vogelmann, dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The farmers would benefit from the added income while researchers would have access to more cows, possibly in more modern facilities.

“We’re really excited because we feel that this is really a new model that land-grant institutions can work toward,” Vogelmann said.

Most land-grant universities face similar challenges, he said, as the cost of keeping animals increases faster than the price of milk or state funding.

A minority of schools are discontinuing their herds, but all institutions are looking at the costs of keeping their animals, said Jim Linn, vice president of the American Dairy Science Association.

“It is a major cost, and we try and offset some of those costs through research and teaching dollars, but again, it’s more costly than plant sciences,” said Linn, who is department head for animal science at the University of Minnesota, which, like Michigan State University, is selling one of three herds.

Cows also will go on the auction block at the University of Kentucky, which hopes to reduce its herd from about 140 animals to about 100 by September.

Along with being squeezed by low milk prices and costly upkeep, the school has run out of room to spread manure as other agriculture programs expand, said Nancy Cox, director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean for College of Agriculture.

Kentucky had hoped to move its herd to a new facility at Eastern Kentucky University about 30 minutes away, but money isn’t available right now to build it, Cox said.

“We are losing money,” she said.

While the universities aren’t into dairying to make money, many sell their milk to try to recoup some of their costs.

“Certainly the economy that’s affected dairy farming in general has affected us and it’s not sustainable,” Cox said.

On top of that, states have been reducing funding for land-grant universities for about 20 years or longer, said Paul Hassen, a spokesman for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. That has only accelerated with the budget problems in many states.

Forum reporter Kelly Smith contributed to this article