When I was a boy, a deer or wild turkey on the roadside would have brought Dad’s ’53 Mercury to a dead stop. Such critters were a rarity.
Jersey milk cows, however, were scattered over pastures like June daises. Missouri had them by the thousands. Fast-forward to 2021, however, and just the opposite is true. Wild turkeys hardly warrant a second look, and whitetail deer are a traffic hazard.
Jersey milk cows — indeed, milk cows of any breed — are increasingly rare on Missouri pastures, supplanted by beef cattle, soybean fields, poultry barns and housing developments. That rural landscape of today begs the question, “If June is truly Dairy Month, where are the dairy cows?”
Gone to Texas or New Mexico? I dunno; but they’re not here. University of Missouri Extension data puts the state’s current milk cow count at about 78,000 — less than 17 percent of the 460,849 on Missouri farms my senior year of high school, 1964-65. Just 14 years earlier, in 1950, the count was 933,317. For more numbers, go to extension.missouri.edu/programs/dairy-extension/missouri-dairy-industry-snapshot.
Clearly, the farm landscape once familiar to both me and my dad has all but vanished. The small dairy farms that lay like checkerboard squares along country roads are long gone. Milk cans no longer wait at the ends of driveways, neither do small tank trucks back up to quaint, concrete block grade-A dairy barns one after another. Except for a few, struggling survivors, all that remains of the dairy industry of my youth are shuttered milking parlors, stanchion barns falling in on themselves and 10-gallon milk cans used as plant stands. If those images aren’t enough, take a drive south of Ozark and take a look at the old Blansit Dairy Cattle Auction — a haunting reminder of the heydays of dairy farming in the Ozarks.
Though milk cows have not completely disappeared from the landscape, in many counties they number in the hundreds where once there were thousands. Dallas County has just 1,600 milk cows, according to USDA, but that’s 1,000 more than Greene County. Missouri counties with the most dairy cows in 2020 were Barry (5,700), Wright (5,400), Vernon (4,500), Lawrence (3,500) and Scotland (3,400).
Obviously, somebody is still milking cows night and morning. Years ago I did a feature on Memory Lane Dairy at Fordland, and I’m glad to still be drinking their milk. But they are one of but a handful of regional producer/processors.
Gone forever are my days as a junior member of the Jersey Cattle Club, the gentle Jerseys we milked by hand every night and morning of my youth, and the bucket of milk we brought to the house each evening, poured into jars and later skimmed off the heavy, golden cream for our morning coffee or blackberry cobbler topping.
Though I rue the demise of small dairy farms, I am mindful that the face of agriculture is ever changing. Previous generations lamented the decline of mule breeders and the closing of tomato canning factories.
So, too, do I rue the disappearance of little brown, doe-eyed Jerseys, golden Guernseys and all their ilk from roadside pastures — forgetting, for the present, all the work they required each and every day.
It is, after all, June, Dairy Month, and my hat’s off to the hardy few folk who still go to their barns every day of the year.
And, as I peruse the rural landscape, I think perhaps it is fitting such an observance comes on the heels of Memorial Day.