Dairy farmers have struggled in recent years even with good milk prices. Feed costs rose because of demand for corn from the ethanol industry and droughts, including one in 2012 that covered two-thirds of the nation.
The price for benchmark December corn on Thursday as $3.67, compared to about $5.90 two years ago.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, warned farmers not to be complacent. In 2009 and 2012, milk gluts sent prices tumbling below the cost of production.
"Dairy prices are very high right now ... but you only have to have about a 1 or 1.5 to 2 percent surplus, and every dairy farmer knows that can go into a tailspin," said Leahy, who joined Vilsack in announcing the program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an online tool to help farmers figure out how much insurance they need.
Farmers can buy catastrophic coverage for $100 per year. It would pay if the difference between milk prices and feed costs sank to less than $4 per hundred pounds of milk on average. If a bigger margin is needed to make ends meet, farmers can buy additional coverage and pay a higher premium.
Ralph McNall, who has 200 Holsteins in Fairfax, Vermont, said the margin protection program is "as fair a program as they could hope to achieve," and most local farmers are OK with it. He said he appreciated the fact that it took feed prices into account.
Dairy economist Mark Stephenson said one difference between the dairy program and home or auto insurance is that most people don't know when they will have a car accident or home fire, but dairy farmers often have some warning of a milk glut or spike in feed prices.
"It's not going to be a perfect forecast, but you'll know generally if it's going to be a good year or bad year," he said.
Another challenge is that the program uses national averages to calculate the margin, so farmers have to figure out how their local markets compare, said Stephenson, the director of the Center for Dairy Profitability at the University of Wisconsin.
"So, if you knew that in 2013, you were OK, but you had some difficulties — 2012 was really bad — you might decide that a $5 margin was when you had a really hard time," Stephenson said. But, he added, "Once you determine that, you don't have to do that all the time. You just need to look at the forecast for the year ahead."
State extension services and USDA's Farm Service Agency will provide training for farmers signing up for the program, Vilsack said.