Dairy

Farmers Milking For What It's Worth (Not Much), Unsure What Comes Next

May 17, 2018
Nicole Erwin / Ohio Valley ReSource

Dairy farmer Gary Rock sits in his milking parlor, overlooking what is left of his 95-cow operation in LaRue County, Kentucky.

“Three hundred years of history is something that a lot of people in our country cannot even talk about,” Rock said. That’s how long the farm has been in his family.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tossed out a set of proposed changes this week that would have redefined living conditions for dairy and beef cattle, sheep, lamb, poultry and egg-laying chickens on certified organic farms.

As the nation's dairy farmers struggle through their fourth year of depressed milk prices, concerns are rising that many are becoming depressed themselves. The outlook for the next year is so bleak, it's heightening worries — especially in the Northeast — about farmer suicides.

Agri-Mark Inc., a dairy cooperative with about 1,000 members, saw three farmers take their own lives in the past three years. The most recent was last month. It's a very small sample, but very sharp and disturbing increase.

In central Nebraska, a combine unloads harvested corn into a truck. For many farmers, the cost of growing a field of corn remains higher than the amount they can make from it.
File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The farm economy is showing some stability, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, but the upswing doesn’t extend to all agricultural sectors.

Over the last three years, farm earnings have plummeted, eliciting concerns that the farm economy could tumble toward another farm crisis like the 1980s. For 2018, the USDA expects net farm income to rebound by a modest 3 percent nationwide, to $63 billion.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Galen Fick milks 50 Brown Swiss cows every day on his farm in Boyden, Iowa, where his family has been in the dairy business for generations. Life as a dairy farmer has gotten harder and harder, he says, especially in the past two years.

 

“Our inputs have gone up so much, not the feed part of it but everything else,” he says, pointing to veterinary care and, especially, labor. “For us to make that profit, [it] makes it very tough.”

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.

At the public library in the rural Morgan County town of Brush, Colorado, Marissa Velazquez welcomes her students to class. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and today marks the halfway point in Velazquez’s class, a ten-week crash course on American history, civics and English.

Everyone in it has the same goal: become an American citizen. In two hours, Velazquez runs through voting rights, the legislative process and some grammar tips.

A war is brewing over what you pour on your breakfast cereal.

Dairy farmers say the makers of plant-based milks – like almond milk, soy milk and a long list of other varieties – are stealing away their customers and deceiving consumers. And they’d like the federal government to back them up.

At its heart, the fight boils down to the definition and use of one simple word: milk.

The population of Northern Colorado is booming. People are flocking to the area and population numbers are on the rise.

The same thing is happening with dairy cows.

Weld and Larimer counties already sport high numbers of beef and dairy cattle, buttressed by the region’s feeding operations. But an expansion of a cheese factory owned by dairy giant Leprino Foods will require even more cows to churn out the milk needed to produce bricks of mozzarella cheese and whey protein powder.

America's dairy farms are doing more with less. There are fewer dairy cows today than just a few decades ago, but today’s cows are churning out more milk than ever.

Part of the increase is due to genetics. Dairy cows have been bred to be larger, hungrier, and more productive. But that focus on genetics to produce more milk has some prominent livestock advocates ringing alarm bells.

The Top 1 Percent

When it comes to milk production, no other cow tops Gigi.