It certainly has been a tough few years in the dairy industry. With the future looking ever bleaker for the next nine months, many are making the gut-wrenching decisions to finally throw in the towel and quit milking.
This past week alone there were three large herd dispersions at sales in Minnesota. I read that there may not be a single dairy left in the state of Rhode Island by the end of the year. In North Dakota, our family’s dairy is one of the less than 90 dairy farms left milking.
Dairying is our business, but it is also our family’s history and story. My grandparents had a small milking operation in Minnesota. My grandfather moved to south central North Dakota after he started selling milk cows in the area we now live. He then started a dairy leasing operation, and my dad then began one as well. When one of my dad’s larger leasing operations went very bad, he found himself in a mid-sized dairy operation within the span of a day. It has slowly grown from there over the past decades.
We have been trying to watch every penny now, from feed costs to repairs. We are getting several estimates and quotes for each purchase, whereas we wouldn’t have spent the time to worry about the cost when times weren’t so lean.
On our farm, we have been in desperate need of a new milking parlor. Ours has outlived what should have been its lifespan by a few years, but replacing it is not in the budget with prices the way they are now. Instead, our solution was to purchase slightly used gates and stalls from a closed operation and retrofit them into our current parlor to try and get by.
My dad and I have had discussions on what we could be doing now — from growing speciality crops to turning the operation over completely to a beef operation. But we still have the fight left to keep going. We love our dairy farm and the industry.
I don’t think there is a fix for the prices, because they are completely out of our control, and we really are at the mercy of the market. With the strong dollar and oversupply of product, I don’t see a major correction in the market anytime soon.
With a product so perishable, we have very limited bargaining power. Every day I hear another story of a third or fourth generation dairy farmer who has finally given up the fight and taken “the girls to town.” I guess our family can be thankful that our cooperative has not sent out suicide hotline numbers with the milk checks, as a cooperative in New York recently has done.
I certainly don’t want to be all doom and gloom, but it has been extremely hard to find any bright spots in this ever-dimmer industry. While we cut costs, we try to continue to increase production within our herd. But by doing so, we contribute to the initial problem. As consumer demand has remained steady, production has steadily increased. Production per cow has gone way up. Parlor efficiency is much better.
We now produce 2,429 gallons of milk per cow per year versus 548 gallons of milk per cow per year in 1944. While there were 25.6 million milk cows in 1944, there are only 9.2 million now, yet we produce 22 billion gallons of milk annually versus the 14 billion gallons produced back then.
The dairy industry has a genius marketing team, and each ad campaign is better than the last. Yet, on a daily basis we fight against animal rights groups’ misinformation about the safety of milk.
So how do we get consumers to increase the demand for our fluid milk? I think information is the ticket. They need to know that our milk is safe. The misinformation on the internet is rampant. Tell your dairy story wherever you go.
My hope and prayer is that our dairy friends and colleagues can hang tough during this difficult time in the dairy farming industry and make it through until a break even, or even a profit, can be seen again!
By: Denise Morman