As Texas dairy farmers work hard to produce a safe, steady supply of milk and other dairy products to feed our state, one of their worries is how to keep that commitment to consumers if a disaster struck the farm.
Dairy farmers, like others in agriculture, worry about two different types of disaster that could wipe out their livelihood and, more importantly, devastate the food supply – disease and weather.
June – National Dairy Month – is an ideal time to take a look at how the entire dairy industry – from the individual family farm all the way up to federal regulators – continually plans to prevent, prepare for, react to, and recover from a disaster.
The Texas Association of Dairymen has worked in recent months on disaster planning and preparedness with a number of industry partners, other agriculture organizations, and local, state and federal agencies.
This network currently is participating in a massive, long-term drill that envisions a scenario in which a foreign animal disease is brought into the country and, inadvertently, infects an individual dairy farm.
The exercise is a comprehensive examination of the numerous issues that would arise in such an outbreak, including containment, the impact on the milk supply, livestock issues transportation challenges and retail implications, as well as biosecurity safeguards farms should implement now to prevent a disease outbreak.
These drills often spawn more questions to address, and they are excellent opportunities to identify and address weaknesses in order to improve preparedness.
While this ongoing exercise focuses on the accidental spread of disease, the deliberate spread of disease – bioterrorism – has been of particular concern to the agriculture industry since the 9/11 attacks on our nation. An attack on even a single U.S. farm could have a catastrophic impact on the country’s food supply and be difficult to detect and control.
As a result, farmers have become more aware of and diligent in implementing a wide range of measures and practices to better secure their facilities and protect the milk supply.
When it comes to a weather disaster, there’s not much we can do to halt Mother Nature. We have to focus on preparation and recovery. Weather has been particularly harsh to the Texas dairy industry in recent years. First, we had the long-term, historic drought. Thankfully, rains in the past year or so have filled tanks and reservoirs and nourished crops.
Most recently, Winter Storm Goliath brought record snowfall and hurricane-force winds to the Texas Panhandle just after Christmas. Dairy farmers prepared their livestock and property as much as possible in advance of the mammoth storm, the likes of which even the old-timers in the area had never seen. But despite all their precautions, the storm killed 15,000 dairy cows, blew down fences and barns, closed roads that kept employees from getting to the farms to milk the cows and haulers from getting to the farm to transport milk, and temporarily reduced milk production from cows that were stressed or suffered other storm-related ailments.
The area – the biggest milk-producing region in Texas – still continues to recover. But already farmers and state agencies alike have evaluated the weather event to determine how preparation and reaction can be improved in the future. With Mother Nature, there’s always a “next time.”
At the end of the day, this crisis preparedness planning is conducted to ensure that dairy farmers can keep farming and providing high quality, safe and affordable milk and dairy products for consumers not only during this National Dairy Month, but throughout the year.
Darren Turley is executive director of Texas Association of Dairymen (www.milk4texas.org).