ATLANTA -- Grocery shoppers can blame hot, hungry, lonely cows for higher milk prices, up an average 34 cents per gallon in July across Georgia.
Drought and high temperatures shriveled crops being grown to feed cows and made them uncomfortably hot. There are also fewer of them, thanks to a 20-year trend of dairy farmers selling their land to housing developers.
Processors imported 3.25 million gallons of milk last month, 65 percent more than the nearly 2 million gallons imported in July of the previous year.
The higher price comes from the cost of transporting milk from as far away as New Mexico, about 1,000 miles west of Georgia.
The drought caused milk production on Georgia farms -- except for dairies with air-conditioned cattle barns -- to drop as much as 25 percent.
"Unfortunately, our dairy cattle can't produce as much milk when it's hot, humid, and there's no rain," Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said.
"We've already had a few complaints of higher-than-normal milk prices at the retail level, and if this heat doesn't break soon, we many have more complaints until our production can increase," Irvin said.
Joe West, a University of Georgia cattle feed specialist in Tifton, said the drought has robbed nourishment from the plants cows feed on.
In addition, some corn that was not dried up in the fields has now been found to contain aflatoxin, a cancer-causing agent left by mold during the extreme heat. The university extension service on Thursday warned county agents statewide against feeding untested corn to dairy cows.
"There is plenty of milk around the U.S. We just have a serious shortage here in the Southeast," said Larry Guthrie, a University of Georgia dairy science expert in Athens. "Our dairy farmers have really taken a beating the last three years on the milk prices."
Farmers have lobbied state lawmakers, so far to no avail, to authorize the state to join other Southeastern states in setting higher milk prices. They say the increased revenues are needed to prevent the loss of more small farms.
Gov. Zell Miller opposed the dairy compact legislation, saying it would have raised consumer prices too much.