For two years, milk sold for record prices, and then the bottom dropped out along with the economy.

But feed and energy prices haven’t dropped as fast. To survive, Georgia dairymen like Everett Williams of Madison, Ga., have had to cut costs, and have ended up helping the environment, too.

Recycling manure and bedding sand, using good feed and paying “a lot of attention to detail,” Williams said, has kept his dairy afloat.

“We just got big enough to pay bills,” said Williams’ son Justin, who quit his job as a loan officer in Atlanta a few years ago to work on the farm.

Before the economic bust, farmers across the country expanded, said Tommie Shepherd, an agribusiness economist with the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. Unfortunately, “a cow’s not like a water faucet. You don’t just turn the spigot off,” he said.

In April 2008, milk in Georgia averaged $3.99 a gallon. This year, it’s $3.19 a gallon. Good news for consumers, but not for milk producers. They are losing between $2 and $3 per 100 pounds of milk they sell. The average cow produces between 50 pounds and 80 pounds, or six to nine gallons, per day.

Georgia dairies have been disappearing. In 2000, the state had 400. It now has 270.

Shepherd says the decline is caused in part by urban sprawl and the climate.

“The South is at a production disadvantage... It’s much more difficult to produce milk in 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity than it is to produce in Western states like California and Wisconsin,” he said.

Georgia’s milk production remains at its 2000 level because surviving farms have gotten bigger. Milk is often shipped in from other parts of the country, just as Georgia milk is shipped to dairy-poor Florida.

For Dave Clark of Godfrey Dairy in Morgan County, it’s important that Georgia dairies stay open. “If we can make milk in Georgia, we don’t have to burn fuel to bring it from Wisconsin,” he said. “Plus, the local supply is a lot better, fresher.”

To help them stay open, UGA Cooperative Extension specialist Bobby Smith works with dairies in Morgan, Putnam and Greene counties, the hub of Georgia’s milk industry, where 70 dairies operate. He helps solve their problems. Recently, that meant helping Clark conduct an energy audit.

“His irrigation was all on diesel,” Smith said. “He converted it all to electric, and now he operates at 20 percent what it cost to operate off diesel.”

Clark says that saving money and staying open as a dairy helps the local economy. Because of the dairies, Madison has been able to maintain infrastructure.

“At one time, we had over 100 dairies in Morgan County,” Clark said. “Now we have 28.”

To cut costs at Williams Dairy, they use dry cow manure to fertilize their land. Soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are found in cow manure, which they make sure doesn’t runoff into nearby water.

“Recycling nutrients just helps you grow crops,” Everett Williams said. “You can put (manure) in a hole and let it run off or use it.”

They irrigate the farm with wastewater that has been filtered and cleaned.

“He applies wastewater through those pivots,” said Smith, pointing to the irrigation system. “For him, the drought wasn’t as bad, but he did feel the effects to some extent.”

“We’re extremely efficient as far as using waste water and reusing nutrients,” Justin Williams hollered over the sound of his tractor’s engine. He was chopping forage, which is stored and later fed to the cows, along with corn, rye grass and wheat.

To help Georgia dairy farmers, Cooperative Extension specialists have used a U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation innovation grant. It helps them lead farmers through a process that includes on-farm environmental assessments and potential environmental risk management plans.

The hope is dairymen will save money while being good environmental stewards, said Adam Speir, a UGA Extension agriculture pollution prevention specialist.

“Being environmentally sound and financially sound go hand-in-hand,” he said. “By going through the environmental management system process, we hope dairy farmers can save money by also implementing best management practices on their farm.”