THAXTON – Every morning, without fail and no matter the weather, Jeremy Graham wakes up at 1:45. Before his neighbors, before most farm animals, before most of his friends and family in this small Pontotoc County community. By: Dennis Seid
He might have time to grab a quick bite to eat before heading to the milk barn a short drive from the home he shares with his wife, Beth, and their two daughters. By 2:30 a.m., Graham and some of his workers are ready to milk some of the nearly 200 dairy cows of the Graham Dairy Farm.
Fifteen hours later, after a second milking is done, Graham is ready to relax for a bit before the process starts over. After four or five hours of sleep, another day begins.
Graham wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I never dread going to work,” said the second-generation dairy farmer. “I look forward to every day coming out here. I may get frustrated at times, but that happens to everybody. The Lord has blessed us. Everything’s been paid for by black-and-white cows and white milk. This is our way of life.”
And it’s a way of life that is dwindling in Northeast Mississippi, which at one time was one of the largest dairy-producing regions in the country.
Today, only a handful of dairy farmers remain in the area. During the peak years of the industry more than a half-century ago, dairy was the mainstay for thousands.
“We are few and far between now,” Graham said. “North of Highway 82, there are maybe a dozen dairy farms left.”
Among them is Taylor Jersey Farm in Prentiss County, about an hour away from Thaxton. Royal Taylor bought the Prentiss County farm in 1977 and moved to it a year later.
He remembers those heady days of dairy farming, when the towering silos, sheds and milk barns were a common sight.
“There were 27 dairies in Prentiss County when we moved over in 1978,” he said. “Now we’re it. The only one left.”
The farm is now run by Taylor’s son and daughter-in-law, Bradley and Carla, who start their days at 5 a.m. and, if they’re fortunate, are done by 9 p.m.
Such is the life of a dairy farmer. The early mornings and late nights are one reason why their numbers are disappearing.
Statewide, dairy numbers are a fraction of what they were. In 1990, Mississippi had 653 dairy farms with some 62,000 cows. The number of farms dipped under 100 for the first time in 2013, and today, only 75 remain.
And fewer farms and cows mean less milk.
In the first quarter of this year, milk production was down 7 percent from the same time a year ago. From January to March of 2016, dairy producers in the state collected 42 million pounds of milk compared to 39 million pounds – or about 4.5 million gallons – this year.
“This was primarily due to a lower number of dairy cows,” said Mississippi State University Extension Service livestock economist Josh Maples. “There are about 9,500 dairy cows in Mississippi – down from 10,000 in the first quarter of 2016.”
The value of Mississippi milk production also has fallen. Last year, production was estimated to be $25 million, down from $32 million in 2015.
A combination of factors have led to the drop-off in dairy farming, but the biggest blow in recent years was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Nearly 40 farms closed in the following year. Most of the state’s dairy farms are in south Mississippi, and some were so heavily damaged, many producers opted out. Within three years, some 100 farms were shuttered.
From 1990 to 2005, milk production in the state dropped by 50 percent. And production continues to decline as the number of dairies disappear.
With that decline went much of the infrastructure – equipment companies, processors, suppliers, industry specialists and dairy-focused veterinarians.
And time has played a major role, too.
“Like anything else, there are multiple issues about the decline of the dairy industry, but age is definitely a factor,” said Amanda Stone, MSU Extension dairy specialist. “The average dairy producer in the U.S. is about 55, and they’re retiring. And they’re not necessarily encouraging their children to take over, or their children choose not to.
“It’s a very hard way of life. You don’t get a day off, you work all the time and it’s physically demanding.”
A LONG HAUL
More than half of the states don’t produce enough milk of their own to meet the needs of its residents. Mississippi is one of those “milk-deficit” states.
The typical Mississippi dairy farm has a herd of 133 milking cows.
Graham has 199 mature cows, about a third more than he had about a decade ago.
“The biggest reason why we’ve grown is that as the number of dairies in Northeast Mississippi have dwindled, it’s gotten harder to fill a milk truck to make it economical to go south,” he said.
Graham’s milk goes to the Borden plant in Hattiesburg, which runs a route that allows it to pick up raw milk every 60 hours.
The Taylors in Prentiss County have 120 milking cows and another 150 young stock.
Dairy farming is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation, as Stone said. Cows have to be milked twice a day, and must be cared for and looked after constantly – much like young children.
“That’s 260 ‘babies’ we have to provide everything for, and it gets tough,” Carla Taylor said. “It’s gotta be done; somebody has to do it.”
The Taylors are part of a dairy cooperative and have their milk picked up every two days.
“We market through the co-op, and they dispatch it to were it needs to go,” Bradley said. “Right now our milk goes to the Prairie Farms plant in Kosciusko. Sometimes it goes to Birmingham, and sometimes it goes to Hammond, Louisiana.”
An independent producer, Graham sells his milk to Borden. But Graham is one of only four dairies on the Borden route, which covers more than 630 miles and 16 hours on the road.
To make the trek worthwhile, farms on the route need to put as much milk as possible on the truck. Graham added more cows – which produce about 5 gallons each per day – to help ensure the Borden’s truck gets an adequate load.
“It’s going to cost as much to run the truck half-full as it does full. Might as well fill it as much as we can and keep them coming,” he said.
Graham’s farm can put 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of milk on a truck, the equivalent of 2,300 to 2,900 gallons.
The rest of the Borden route includes Gallop and Sons Dairy Farm, a fourth-generation producer in Wren, and dairy farms in Montpelier and Philadelphia.
Having more farmers on the route would make life easier – and more profitable – for processors and dairy producers, but the numbers aren’t growing.
THE JERSEY CAPITAL
That wasn’t the case nearly a century ago.
Northeast Mississippi made a big, bold step that eventually led it to become a dairy destination.
The first creamery began making butter in 1912. The first condensery in the state (and in the South) began operations in 1926. The first cheese plant opened in 1927.
Carnation Milk opened a plant in 1927 in Tupelo.
The reason why so many farmers had dairy cows was because of the destruction caused by the boll weevil on the economic mainstay, cotton.
Farmers were advised they needed a side cash crop to supplement cotton. It was an early call for diversification. In Lee County, some 24,000 acres of cotton was switched to pasture land.
The dairy farmers’ milk went to nearby milk plants and other dairy-related operations that dotted the area. There were milk plants in New Albany and in Baldwyn. In Tupelo, Ruff Dairy was the first to pasteurize milk in the area in 1934. Barber’s and Borden’s also later built plants.
But it wasn’t until the late 1940s and 1950s that the dairy industry experienced its biggest boom.
That’s when longtime Daily Journal publisher George McLean and business leaders in the community pooled their money together to buy a prize bull from England. Their aim was to introduce it to the region’s dairy farmers, who would breed better dairy cows.
McLean believed that better cows would mean better milk, which would lead to more money for farmers. That, in turn, would put much-needed cash into the economy.
“We bought 22 heifers and that one bull, which was named Imported Clemance’s Boy,” Harry Martin, who led the Community Development Foundation from 1956-2000, said in an earlier interview. “The community bought it, and it cost between $1,000 and $2,000. That was a lot of money back then.”
The Tupelo Area Artificial Insemination Association started breeding more than 3,000 cows a year to improve the dairy herds across the region.
As the better cows produced more and better-quality milk, it didn’t take long for the dairy industry to blossom.
“We were the Jersey Cattle Capital’ for several years,” Martin said. “Cotton paid the mortgage. But with dairy you got paid every two weeks. That educated children and bought things the family needed. It was supplemental income.”
Milk production statewide was the second-highest source of income to farmers behind cotton.
Today, Mississippi is ranked 41st nationwide in milk production, with about 165 million pounds, or 19 million gallons a year.
Seventy years ago, the state produced a staggering 1.4 billion pounds of milk, or roughly 167 million gallons.
In comparison, today’s top-producing state is California, which delivers more than 42 billion pounds of milk annually.
But dairy farming has never been easy in the South. The heat and humidity plays a large role in reduced production. The average dairy cow in Mississippi produces about 14,769 pounds of milk a year, or about 1,717 gallons. The national average is nearly 23,000 pounds, or nearly 2,700 gallons.
“It’s harder to dairy farm here than other places,” Stone said. “Dairy cows get heat-stressed at about 68 degrees, and that’s not really hot. We’d like to get as much milk out of them as cows in California, Wisconsin and New York, but they don’t have to deal with the heat that we do.”
Bradley Taylor said when temperatures reach into the 90s during the day and stay in the upper 70s and 80s at night, the cows don’t get a chance to cool.
And if the cows are too stressed to eat, they’ll produce less milk.
“When it’s hot, they don’t want to eat, no matter how much you put in front of them. Under the shed and under a fan, you still can’t cool them down enough,” he said.
Like humans, they like to be somewhat comfortable doing what they do, and the Taylors do what they can with 260 Jersey cows, whether it’s during the blistering summer months or the freezing cold.
“They’re creatures of habit, and any disruption of their routines also affects production,” Carla Taylor said. “We try to keep everything as routine as possible. Happy cows are good cows.”
And happy cows produce more milk, of course.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
The Taylors, in their 30s, aren’t sure what the future of dairy farming may be, despite their obvious passion for the business.
They would certainly like to remain in the business, as long as it remains financially feasible for them to do so.
“It’s hard to say where we’ll be 10 years from now,” Bradley said. “Ten years ago, I could’ve probably told you with certainty. Now, I’m not so sure.”
For those still in the industry, there is some promising news, according to MSU Extension. Producers are paid for every hundred pounds of milk or hundredweight. In April, they were paid $17.97 per hundredweight, up from $16.34 a year before.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts higher demand for milk and exports will drive the nationwide average price higher.
But whether the price increase is enough to offset higher input and transportation costs remains to be seen.
Stone said as the number of dairy farms decline, some of the remaining ones will get a little bigger to help compensate for some of the losses. They’ll add more cows, as Taylor Jersey Farm has done, and they’ll find ways to adapt.
“I think there’s a lot of hope. It won’t look like it used to with farms all over the place, but we’ll always have a presence,” she said. “For example, there might be more of a niche market for some. Mississippi has 11 producers with on-farm processing, where they make cheese or bottle milk and sell it, and I see it going toward that direction with some.”
Among those niche dairy farmers is Brown Family Dairy in Oxford, which started in 2009 and sells its milk at farmers’ markets, grocery stores and restaurants across the region.
“There are younger people who are more interested in the processing end of the business more so than the dairy farming aspect, and that’s kind of a cool thing we have that other states aren’t doing as much,” Stone said.
The Taylors and Grahams, remain hopeful, but cautious.
“I’m not so worried about me being economically running the dairy,” Graham said. “It’s whether there’s anybody left around to help me get my milk moved. I’m afraid it’s some other factor outside my control that’s going to put me out.
“But every ounce of hope is still right here in milking cows. That’s every bit of my dream. I hope to be in it until I’m ready to retire and can’t move again.”
Source: Daily Journal