As dairy month comes to a close, the realities of an ever-changing industry are more apparent in northwest Tennessee and southwest Kentucky than ever before.
From a proliferation of dairy farms in Weakley County in the 1970s to now only three, and with the closure of production at the Prairie Farms Fulton, Kentucky facility effective June 30, the stronghold dairy once claimed has obviously loosened.
Danny Nanney of Cecil Nanney & Sons, a milk transport company that has served Weakley County and West Tennessee since 1949, says he remembers the days when “you drove out of one driveway in Weakley County and into the next” as they collected the milk and ensured its delivery to processing plants. These days the drives encompass three states.
“The mom-and-pop farms are a thing of the past,” said Nanney. “Nobody is going into it because work is seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on a dairy farm.”
The changes in the operating structure at the Prairie Farms facility means milk production will be transferred to the Prairie Farms plant in Memphis. The Fulton facility will continue to operate as a distribution hub and receive daily deliveries of milk and dairy products from the Memphis plant, said Rebecca Leinenbach, vice president of marketing and communications at Prairie Farms.
“The decision to transfer milk production was made only after a long and careful review of options. It was not a reflection on the work of employees. Those affected by the change will be provided severance benefits and considered for employment at other facilities where opportunities exist,” said Leinenbach.
She added that route drivers, distribution workers, customer service, sales and administrative personnel are not affected by the change, and there will not be a disruption of delivery service or product availability.
Freeman Brundige, a dairy farmer and a member of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council board of directors, says the demise of the small dairy farm is one of the motivators for his involvement with dairy shows like the one he organizes as part of the Tennessee Soybean Festival.
“The drawback I have is I’ve spent my life working with cattle. With the large 4,000- to 5000-cow dairies, you’re managing people rather than cows,” he noted. He hopes activities like the dairy shows encourage youth to pursue dairy farming. “Kids are going to love cows and maybe that propels them into more people wanting to be in the dairy business, but there’s going to have to be a way to make a profit.”
Brundige points to a system that seeks to balance supply and demand as the source for economic difficulties for the smaller farmer. The southeast is a major producer of milk. As such, and with current low milk prices, he identifies dairy associations that limit new farms being built and prohibit expansion of existing farms as problematic.
“The agencies we sell our milk to are not allowing us to do it because they say we have too much milk,” said Brundige. “They want to ship in rather than utilizing what they have locally.”
Dr. Elizabeth Eckelkamp, University of Tennessee Dairy Extension Specialist, explains that what has been happening in the agriculture sector in general is, over time, “we’ve gotten efficient at producing whatever commodity we are producing.” Dairy farming is following the basic law of economics, “too much supply and not enough demand.”
“We’ve figured out how to get more milk out with less in – more milk per animal,” she said, noting that cows can now provide up to 130 pounds of milk a day. As a result, the U.S. has a national oversupply of milk.
“It’s hard to justify expansion when there is milk somewhere and there is no place for it to go,” said Eckelkamp.
“Unfortunately, in most commodities for the supply to go down, farms go out of business,” she added. “It’s not just a Tennessee thing; it’s not just a southeast thing or a U.S. thing. It’s global.”
Part of the problem is that fluid milk consumption is down. Preferences and sensitivities are partly to blame. Even though studies show that drinking whole milk means less obesity because drinking whole milk makes one feel full, consumers prefer other options. For dairy farms to stay in business, increased consumption of dairy products is necessary.
Eckelkamp points out that Dairy Farmers of America, a national cooperative, involves a lot of differing perspectives on what should and should not be done “but all are just as passionate.”
One such passionate perspective comes from Laura Bell, part of the Bell family dairy legacy that includes two of the remaining three dairy farms in Weakley County. She sees the DFA as trying to prevent oversupplying and a means by which they can find a place for their milk to go. Currently, their Jersey cows produce the high fat and high solids that Prairie Farms in Carbondale needs.
“We have superior genetics than we had 40 years ago,” Bell said further noting that DFA efforts such as comparing three years of production and determining an average above which you can be penalized and below which provides a benefit is a means of “leveling the playing field.”
Source: NWTN Today