By Whit Weems
Most kids love roller coasters and can’t wait to get the chance to ride one. When they do, it always ends too soon. With the dairy industry, it’s a completely different story. Dairymen are ready to get off this ride. The severe ups and downs they currently face are having a major impact on their livelihoods.
Dairy has been the major agriculture enterprise in Erath County for more than 20 years. In 1990, Erath moved into the Number 1 milk-producing county in Texas and has remained strong for more than two decades. But what a roller coaster it has been.
Growing up in Erath County, I have seen major changes in the dairy business. Although I wasn’t actively involved when I was young, I couldn’t help but be aware of the major impact dairy had on this Central Texas region. The growth of the community continued well into the new millennium. Although much different than it was 20 years ago, dairy is still a major economic contributor to this region with over two-thirds of the cash receipts for agriculture in Erath County generated by milk sales alone.
The real question is, how long can the industry hang on? Being involved in dairy, I see the challenges farmers face first hand. And it’s not just an Erath County issue. It’s a dairy issue.
Dairy finance and milk marketing are two of the most difficult things I have every studied. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a long way from becoming an expert in either. The price for milk—the main source of income for a dairy farmer—has bottomed and costs much more to produce than what the farmer is currently receiving. In addition to high volatility in milk prices, the economic downturn in our nation is causing the values of cattle, facilities, real estate and equipment to drop significantly. Many dairy farmers are challenged to find additional funds to cover loans. Even worse, some banks are forced to foreclose and shut the doors on many facilities. Feed prices are also high.
In the ’90s, Erath County had over 250 dairies. Last month, the milk market administrator reported 75. In addition, we are trying to recover from one of the worst droughts in history. Last summer, dairy farmers and nutritionists were challenged with feeding cows due to the lack of forages. Hay was trucked in from as far as Canada and quality on many feedstuffs was very poor. Most of the hay and silage crops grown locally were lost and if a crop was made tonnage, it was very low and quality was poor.
But the wild ride didn’t end there. Heat stress was another factor. Dairy farmers work very hard to keep their cows comfortable and one major challenge last year was keeping them cool. Many research-based technologies are in place on dairies to reduce heat stress on cows, but last year challenged dairymen to look for additional sources to help keep cows cool. Add to all that the increasing fuel and energy costs, and the cost of production is much higher.
As we look into the future, it appears the roller coaster ride is far from over. Although we were able to get some relief with excellent winter forage crops, milk futures remain low and the summer heat is upon us. Equity is not increasing.
There is no doubt that dairy farmers will be challenged to think outside the box, pull together and work toward solutions to continue providing one of nature’s most perfect foods.
We all hope this wild ride will end soon, or you may just be asking yourself: “Where did my milk come from today?”
Editor’s Note: Whit Weems is a Texas AgriLife Extension Agent in Erath County and serves on the Texas Farm Bureau Young Farmer & Rancher Advisory Committee.