Marianna Thomson has seen a lot of changes in the 60 years she’s helped run the Robthom dairy farm east of Springfield.
As equipment has advanced, costs have skyrocketed and the once-thriving Missouri dairy industry faces some of its darkest days. The number of dairy farms in Missouri has decreased steadily through the years.
In 1975, there were 21,000 Missouri dairy farms registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the 2007 Census of Agriculture shows just 2,600 dairy farms in the Show-Me State.
Now, Thomson’s grandson, Eric Ling, helps run the 106-year-old Robthom farm and said its future is largely dependent on him. “My husband was in his 80s and if Eric didn’t want to take over, we’d have to do something different,” Thomson said.
Ling said the dairy farming industry has benefited from its history as a family-operated business.
“It’s become a family business in part because it takes so much capital to do it,” Ling said. “Somebody couldn’t just graduate college and say, ‘I want to be a dairy farmer’ without going to work for somebody or winning the lottery. And if you win the lottery, I don’t think you’d want to be a dairy farmer.”
For Ling, however, there was no hesitation to join the family business, which has nearly 400 cattle, including 140 milking cows. “I just grew up doing it,” he said. “I never really explored any other options.”
But David Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association, said fewer members of younger generations are choosing to work in dairy farming, leading to the downfall of several farms.
Beyond labor requirements, increased costs for overhead such as fuel and feed have hindered startups and longtime dairy farmers. Southwest Missouri farmers particularly are burdened by the region’s topography, he said, because it limits the ability to grow corn for feed.
“With dairy, the rule of thumb is half the production cost is feed,” Drennan said. “What happens with the corn price will affect our long-term economic picture for dairy, not only for Missouri but nationwide.”
Dairy farmers also are challenged by energy costs, which include electricity for milk parlors, diesel fuel for milk haulers and fertilizers made from oil, Drennan said.
“Energy costs are a key element to dairy,” said Drennan. “No other farm commodity has a truck coming up their lane every other day like dairy does. State law said milk has to be picked up within 48 hours from the farm in order to maintain its freshness.”
Vickie Kensinger, who operates Memory Lane Dairy near Fordland with her husband David, said her family owned dairy takes a farm-to-table approach, processing, bottling and delivering the milk directly to stores.
Kensinger said Memory Lane Dairy, founded in 2001, reopened in mid-2010 after being down 14 months due to tornado damage, and she’s now facing notably higher production costs.
“All the inputs are going up so much faster than the price of the product,” Kensinger said. “Everything that we use at our little plant has gone up. We’re trying to keep the price of our milk as low as we can, so we can gain more customers.” Kensinger declined to disclose revenues and said Memory Lane spends $17.25 per hundredweight for feed for 133 milking cows and 140 cows raised as replacements.
Drennan, who describes dairy farmers as “price takers, not price makers,” said dairy farmers have no control over the wholesale price of dairy products and, as a result, face mounting expenses with little or no increase in profit.
“Every (dairy farmer) wishes we had more control so we could cover our cost and stay in business and make some money,” said Drennan, noting that dairy farmers get 26 cents on the retail dollar for milk. “That’s a constant challenge that we have no control over.”
Ling said the price of milk in stores has no effect on day-to-day operations on the farm.
“If the price of milk is high, milk more cows. If the price of milk is low, milk more cows,” Ling said. “That’s what people do. No matter what it is, you need more income.”
There is some help available for dairy farmers. The Dairy Business Planning Grant, funded by the Missouri Soybean Association and the Missouri Dairy Growth Council, was established to assist Missouri dairy producers in developing a business plan for startup, expansion, modernization or increased production. The grant will finance 90 percent of the costs of a business plan, up to $5,000, according to www.mda.mo.gov
Drennan said more state and local support for dairy farmers could provide both stimulation and stabilization to the local economy.
“I call a dairy cow an economic development engine. The loss of dairy cows in our state affects the economy wherever those towns are,” said Drennan, noting that one dairy cow equals nearly $14,000 in economic activity. “I think the dairy industry is where we ought to be putting some resources.”[[In-content Ad]]