Want to be an Environmentally-Friendly, Cost-Effective Dairy Farmer? There's an App For That.

By: Meredith Schuh, Staff Member

While the economic crisis that recently took hold in the United States may not have significantly affected Americans in the country's highest tax brackets, our nation's dairy farmers have struggled to stay afloat in these hard financial times. Fortunately, innovative technological minds from Penn State University have created a mobile app, entitled "DairyCents," hoping to ease economic suffering of these hardworking farmers.[1]

Throughout most of the 2000s, "the American dairy industry was doing relatively well," but in 2009, "a series of events including an increase in grain prices, a melamine scare in China[2] and the global recession caused demand to drop dramatically."[3] As a result, a significant number of dairy farms were forced into debt due to an excess supply of cattle.[4] Although milk prices in the U.S. are "strong," they are "determined based on supply and demand and not on the cost of production."[5] Regrettably for dairy farmers, costs of production are high, often higher than milk prices. In his book, "Milk Money: Cash, Cows, and the Death of the American Dairy Farm," author Kirk Kardashian describes this phenomenon as a "chronic oversupply" issue because as milk prices fall, farmers inevitably produce more milk, thus sinking prices even further.[6] Small dairy farms are especially negatively impacted by this problem as they see very little profit; middlemen and retailers get rich because milk prices for consumers remain stable and they avoid the production costs incurred by dairy farmers.[7]

Recognizing the negative effects of this problem on American dairy farms, the creators of "DairyCents" devised a mobile app which can easily calculate a farmer's income over feed cost, compare feed costs with costs paid by others, as well as track feed efficiency and estimate nutrient excretion.[8] This latter feature, a product of the second-generation DairyCents app, is referred to as "precision feeding," which aims to "decrease the amount of nutrients and manure solids that could potentially enter" bodies of water, thus achieving better environmental safety.[9]

DairyCents was made available to smartphone users in August 2012, and with the backing of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Mid-Atlantic Water, the mobile app's inventors are geared up for even greater expansion across the country.[10]

In such hard economic times, it is a relief that technology can aid those seeking to provide an invaluable service to American consumers. It will be interesting to weigh the success of mobile applications such as DairyCents as their use becomes more pervasive.
[1] Scott Elliott, Mobile Apps help Dairy Farmers Compute Costs and be Environmentally FriendlyUSDA.gov, (April 2, 2013, 1:12 PM), http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/04/02/mobile-apps-help-dairy-farmers-compute-costs-and-be-environmentally-friendly/.
[2] In 2009, the FDA blocked the importation of all Chinese products containing milk into the U.S. due to contamination of the milk products with melamine, a chemical compound that can be harmful if consumed by humans or animals. This affected dairy farmers who depended on the exportation of certain milk products from China in their business. See Denise Ibens, The Great Melamine ScareFoodquality.com, http://www.foodquality.com/details/article/807885/The_Great_Melamine_Scare.html?tzcheck=1 (last visited April 9, 2013).
[3] Stephanie McFeeters, Kirk Kardashian talks troubles of dairy farmsTheDartmouth.com, (Jan. 11, 2013), http://thedartmouth.com/2013/01/11/news/dairy.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Supra note 1.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.