Michigan had the highest percentage of dairy closings in 2018, 13%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual summary of licensed dairy herds.
Michigan House Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Julie Alexander of Jackson, a former teacher and farmer’s wife, says her family was one of the 230 in the state to sell its cows last year.
“It was heart-wrenching to see a third-generation family farm make a decision that was simply an economic decision to leave the industry,” she says.
In the House
Alexander is in her second term serving as state representative for the 64th District, which includes the city of Jackson and Concord, Hanover, Napoleon, Parma, Pulaski, Sandstone, Summit and Spring Arbor townships. In her second year teaching, she met local farmer Jeff Alexander.
“On our first date, he took me to dinner and a movie and after he said, ‘Do you want to go back to my place? I’ll show you my cows,’” she remembers. Four months later, they were engaged and have been married for 32 years.
“For 40 years, my husband milked cows with his father and our sons, but last January we sold our milking herd,” she says. Julie and Jeff have four children: Andrew, Adam, Jared and Anna. Andrew decided to leave the dairy, which left the family with a choice to hire someone new or sell the cows.
“If the economy for dairy farming was more lucrative, we probably would have found someone, but with the finances it just wasn’t an option,” Alexander explains. Adam and Jared still work on the farm raising 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, hay and wheat.
Last term, Alexander served as the vice chair and is now the first woman to control the gavel. She says after teaching middle school and adult education for 22 years and 32 years as a farmer, it’s important her fellow legislators understand agricultural issues.
“My No. 1 priority is to educate,” she says. “I want to make sure accurate information is presented. One of my biggest concerns is that it’s easy for individuals to go in a direction that’s not always scientific-based, based on emotions or what they heard — that’s unacceptable to me.”
In the Senate
Michigan Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Kevin Daley is no stranger to difficult decisions by dairy farmers. “About 15 years ago, we sold the dairy cattle and raised replacement heifers for a few years,” says the Lapeer County farmer, who now raises beef cattle and crops.
Serving the 31st District, Daley covers Bay, Lapeer and Tuscola counties and previously was a state representative and chairman of the House Ag Committee.
“The dairy industry is hurting so bad in our state; it’s sad to see what’s going on,” he says.
Last year, Michigan lawmakers approved $1 million to help dairy farmers. Daley says the Legislature is working on how to implement the funding. “Last fall, that started out as a $10 million appropriation to help the dairy industry in some way, and it ended up going through as $1 million,” he explains.
Dairy product donations to food banks are one avenue the Legislature is exploring for the funds.
“We’re not big fans of giveaways, but we’ve got to figure out a way to control the market a little better,” Daley says. “Farmers are actually getting less than I was 15 years ago when I sold the dairy. We’re hearing stories from dairy farmers that are established dairies losing $10,000 a month. They can’t survive that way.”
Daley believes the mistakes made that led so many farmers to exit the business started years ago and now the infrastructure is disappearing.
“What we’re seeing out in my area is the small farmers can’t even get a milk hauler to haul their milk,” he says. He believes that’s contributing to the 13% reduction in Michigan dairy farms — not just the milk price.
Daley believes increased processing capacity from the St. Johns Glanbia plant and other expansion projects underway should help the remaining farmers, but he says the infrastructure also needs to improve.
“When you build the processing facilities near the product, they need three-phase electricity, higher volumes of electricity, water, rail — there’s a lot of things they have to come up with and need help with in the rural districts,” Daley says.
What neighbors are doing
Last June, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ordered the state to create the Dairy Task Force 2.0 Committee, which originally assembled a group of state dairy leaders in the mid-1980s to come up with recommendations to maintain a viable and profitable dairy industry for the state. Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of dairy farms, but farm numbers have been rapidly declining.
In 2017, America’s Dairyland lost 500 dairy farms. In 2018, that number rose to 590. In the decade from 2007 to 2017, the state lost more than 5,000 dairies. The group is requesting the state restore more than $7 million in funding to dairy science programs at the University of Wisconsin and approved 49 recommendations in March, including updates to the milk pricing system, investment in agricultural education, infrastructure, accurate milk labeling and several others.
To the east, Pennsylvania is home to the second-highest number of dairy farms in the nation. Last year, it lost 370, or 6%. The state commissioned a study in 2018 to identify what type of processing is needed to help farmers in their state.
In the fall, the governor approved $5 million to help dairy farmers modernize or expand their businesses through the Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program. Pennsylvania Senate Ag Committee Chairman Elder Vogel Jr. recently introduced legislation, much like Minnesota, that would provide a tax credit to farmers and landowners working with beginning farmers.
More than 2,700 dairies close nationwide
The USDA reports 2,731 licensed dairy farms closed in 2018, nearly 7%. In the Midwest, Michigan lost 13% of dairy farms, Missouri was down 12%, Indiana lost 10%, Ohio was down 8%, Minnesota and Iowa both lost 7%, Wisconsin was down 6% and Illinois was down 5%.
Total 2018 milk production, however, was up 1% at 218 billion pounds, and the herd size only declined slightly, down 0.1% to 9.4 million milk cows. Total per-cow production averaged more than 23,000 pounds last year, up 235 pounds from 2017. Per-cow production has increased 12.6% nationally over the past decade while the herd size has only increased 2%.
During 2018, Michigan had the most productive cows. Colorado and Texas had the largest increase in milk production. Alabama, Hawaii and West Virginia had the largest declines.
Heslip is the Michigan anchor/reporter for Brownfield Ag News.