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By Jimmie Earls
Sun Staff Writer
Whoever said that there's no crying over spilled milk obviously wasn't a diary farmer. As prices for wholesale milk continue to fall, small dairy farmers are literally trying to squeeze out every drop they can in order to meet their profit margin.
Washington County Extension Agent Rick Greenwell said he has never seen it this bad. When he first started working for the extension agency, there were approximately 135 dairy farms in the county. That number dropped to 88 dairies in 1988. The number today is just a fraction of that.
“There's only 16 dairies left in Washington County and they're holding on by the skin of their teeth,” he said. “Agriculture locally is in a recession based on the economy, but dairy is in a depression and it's the worst that I've seen in my 39 years with the agency.”
Greenwell stated that, according to The Kiplinger Agriculture Letter, the U.S. has been losing dairy farms at the rate of 2,400 per year. He also stated that some problems lie with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We have to remember that the USDA's mission is to provide a safe, high-quality abundance of cheap food,” he added. “Nowhere in their mission does it include the farm family.”
Milk is sold by hundredweight, where farmers receive a certain rate for every hundred pounds of milk. Greenwell said the current price is around $13.40 per hundredweight but things could get worse.
“Back in October, it was announced in California, which is the biggest dairy state, it used to be Wisconsin, that milk cold get as low as $6.40 per hundredweight. It's pretty hard to find a silver lining right now and I'm the master at that.”
Greenwell said that most of the favor falls to large dairy farms who can produce large quantities.
“There a farmer in Michigan who has 16,000 cows. He gets $6 more per hundredweight for his milk than a farm with 40 cows here in Washington County would get. That's illegal but that is what's happening. He owns his own trucks and can run trailerloads wherever he wants to. Fair Oaks Dairy in Indiana has 64,000 cows.”
Some local dairy farmers are trying to hang in there. Billy Riney has been dairy farming since October 21, 1978.
“I bought the farm that morning, the cows that afternoon and was milking that night,” he said.
“The biggest change I've seen is now everyone is feeding their cows a TMR mix, which is a total mixed ration. When I first started, I was milking 27 cows, now we're milking 300. You have to milk a whole lot more cows to meet your margin. You just have to be more efficient. To keep costs down, you have to buy feed in bulk by the tractor trailer loads, you can't buy from your local feed stores.”
Greenwell said that one alternative for future milk production in the county may be to concentrate on quality instead of quantity. Last August, Coulter Family Dairy in Washington County was judged the best quality milk producer in the state. Greenwell said that a new source of feed for cattle called wetcake has a higher concentration of nutrients and could lead to a higher milk standard.
“It comes from distilleries, is inexpensive and it's a very high-quality feed,” added Greenwell. “There's a small leadership group of us here who are trying to finalize a contract with one of the distilleries to deliver the feed to farms in an effort to help combat the higher input costs. A TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) level of 70 and a crude protein count of 18 is considered perfect in any feed source. Wetcake has a TDN of 80 plus and a crude protein of 35. It's hard to believe there could be that much good stuff left once the distilling industry has gotten what they need out of it. In my opinion, what we need are more Coulters and less Fair Oaks.”
Despite the tough times, Riney vows to keep going.
“I just love to farm,” he added. “I'm going to be doing it until I'm 96, so I've still got a lot of years left.”
It's easy to say that milk flows through Terry Tingle's veins. The Washington County resident has been dairy farming all of his life.
“My dad always milked and I went to GE and worked for about six months and then came back to the dairy farm and I've been there ever since,” said Tingle. “All of my family has been involved with it and my son is milking on his own dairy farm now.”
Tingle has about 70 dairy cows and he tries to milk round 55.
“It's a lot different now,” he added. “There's not as many dairy's around and you don't have many choices when it comes to sell milk anymore. It's down to just a couple places to sell now and you're happy that somebody will even buy your milk. With the price of milk right now, we're struggling to get by. I hope it's going to get better.”
Tingle said that he's thought about doing other things, but he always returns to what he knows.
“It's the only thing I enjoy doing,” Tingle said. “I like working with the cows. After doing it for so long, you hate to try anything else.”
Greenwell said that a lot of dairy farmers are trapped and must depend on other sources of income to provide for their families.
“A lot of farmers have spouses who have jobs. Those jobs don't have to pay very much but it has to have benefits. I think more younger people would definitely follow in their parents footsteps, but financially it's just not going to be possible.”
The U.S. economy is also creating a Catch 22 situation as more shoppers look for the cheapest price on staple items such as milk, eggs and bread.
“Milk prices at the grocery store are a little on the high side while the price farmers receive continues to drop, so you have to wonder what's going on,” Greenwell said. “ A lot of people want to support local farmers and buy local products, but they also want that Wal-Mart or Kroger price.”
But just because something is cheaper doesn't necessarily mean it's as good or better, as one group recently discovered.
“We had a meeting the other night with a group called the Extension Council and we prepared a local meal for them,” said Rick. “The hamburgers that we cooked were from St. Catharine farm and a couple people we saying that they were the best-tasting burgers they've ever had. Well, it should be because it's a different product than what you would at Wal-Mart or Kroger, but they want quality at that lower price and those two things just don't work.”
Greenwell said that a current buyout is taking shape that will have the dairy industry purchasing 103,000 cows which will go to slaughter.
“When that happened the last time, beef prices went rock bottom and more than likely, that will happen again,” he said. “So as collateral damage, there's going to be a lot of beef farmers who will take a hit from this too.”
“It's policy and it's a mindset from the nation as to what's happening,” Greenwell added. “Unfortunately here at the local level, it impacts people we know and care about.”