Small farms vanish every day in America’s dairyland: ‘There ain’t no future in dairy’

“Look at that sweet heifer, high, tight udder, in her first lactation, idn’t she sweet?” auctioneer Tom Bidlingmaier shouts as his son Cory plods and slips and pushes the cow around a pen.

Watching it all are about 65 people, mostly men, mostly other small farmers in rubber boots, standing in mud and manure as they murmur their bids. Ron Wallenhorst, the farmer auctioning off his herd of 64 milking cows, is pacing and tapping an empty water bottle against his thigh. He has milked cows in his barn twice a day, every day, after taking over the farm from his father 32 years ago. By the afternoon, all the cows will be gone.

“This is our 401k,” said Ron, 55 years old, his tall frame still hearty though he’s 15 pounds lighter from stress.

The omens before the auction had not been great for Ron and his wife Lori. A couple weeks before, a few towns over from their own farm in Cuba City, Wisconsin, which is about 70 miles southwest of Madison, they’d watched another complete dairy dispersal of a better herd. That means it produced more milk – 96 pounds (44 kg) per cow a day to the Wallenhorsts’ 78 (35 kg). The other farmer didn’t make out well financially. “We stood there with tears in our eyes,” Ron said. “Our whole life has been a risk. Deciding to sell was very, very difficult.”

An hour before auctioneer Bidlingmaier started the bidding on the Wallenhorst herd, Lori was crying in a corner of the milk house. She wiped her eyes and stepped out into the morning. “That’s a good sign,” she said, motioning to the trucks rolling up with empty cow trailers attached – they came to buy.

Four hours later, after the last cow is sold, the Wallenhorsts learn the herd went for $1,800 (£1,290) each, on average – relatively high for the region, and more than Ron expected. He smiles for the first time that day, cracking open a beer, finally part of the circle of relatives and neighbors who came not to buy but to support. Then, as a team of determined men coerced a cow up onto its new owner’s trailer, he teared up and walked away.

With the Wallenhorst dairy farm gone, there’s only one left on the seven-mile stretch from one side of town to the other; there were 22 when Ron was growing up there. “We worried no one would show up because dairy farms are just disappearing in our area, so there were fewer and fewer small farmers to buy from us,” Ron said.

The license plates for Wisconsin say “America’s Dairyland” beneath a picture of a red barn. The state has the most dairy farms in the country. But it lost 826 dairy farms in 2019, or 10% of its dairy herds – the most dramatic loss in the state’s history, and part of a downward trend which saw the state lose 44% of its dairy farms over the last decade. Last year, for the first time in state history, the number of dairy farms dipped below 7,000.

At the same time, milk production in the state has increased every year since 2004, and sets a new annual record each year since 2009, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In the last decade alone, Wisconsin has increased milk production by 25%. The number of operations declines, just as the number of cows per operation goes up – 3% of Wisconsin farms now produce roughly 40% of the state’s milk. Milk produced on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), or farms with more than about 700 cows but often housing thousands, is increasingly making up the state’s overall milk production.

The number of large farms like this in Wisconsin has increased by 55% in less than a decade. A family-owned CAFO called Pinnacle moved into Green county in 2018, causing an uproar from local farmers and other residents.

Pinnacle milks 5,000 cows. It is owned by Todd Tuls and his son, TJ, who oversees its 55 employees and the daily operations. Instead of collecting from 30 small farmers across Green county, milk trucks can make just one stop – at Pinnacle – and they do, nine times a day.

Todd said he understood local misgivings. “I can see their anxiety, it’s like a Walmart coming into a small town area and the local store is like how is this going to impact me?” he said. “The one thing that bothers me the most is that people look at us as if we’re a corporation and not a family business. Deep down inside we are a family business,” added Todd, who said he grew up on a California dairy farm with 4,400 cows at its peak in the mid-1980s. His grandfather owned three dairy farms milking more than 3,000 cows in total in 1969, the year Todd was born.

He said the way he relates to his cows despite their size is part of their success, describing himself as “kinda like a cow whisperer”. He argues that other farms missed opportunities to grow. “A lot of these farms that go out of business fail to adapt the techniques and technology. It’s kinda like if Ford or Chevy woulda just kept building the 1972 truck and not kept improving it.”

The Wallenhorsts bought a small beef herd; like many former dairy farmers, they’ll transition to raising steer for slaughter now. But their barn is empty, dairy is done. “It’s quiet, eerily quiet, for the first time in 50-some years. It’s pretty strange,” Ron said. “First couple days was difficult to walk in there.”

Cory Bidlingmaier is a third-generation auctioneer. “He was a nervous wreck, we really had to walk him through all of it,” Cory said of Ron’s state in the weeks leading up to the auction. But Cory has had plenty of experience with anxious farmers. There have been weeks in recent years that Cory has done four to five complete dairy dispersals like the Wallenhorst’s.

Cory grew up in Green county: an expanse of silos and sky in southern Wisconsin that can be driven across east to west in a half hour. Few vehicles are seen other than the semi trucks that cut through the low hills hauling milk. Despite having five farms with 500 or more cows, Green county still has many of Wisconsin’s small dairy farms, about 200, with between 50 and 100 cows, milked by the family.

The county went from being a highly competitive marketplace for generations to an area like so many others in the state where too much milk is being produced. When the price of milk is down, farmers milk more cows to compensate; if the milk price is up, they milk more to capitalize. The excess of milk matches up with a plummet in consumption as milk alternatives and water are chosen over milk. And the glut is worldwide, driving down prices for farmers to the point they are barely breaking even or are losing money to produce it. On top of that, a Green county co-op of 25 local farms that accepts 3.5m pounds (1.6m kg) of milk to create 400,000 pounds (182,000 kg) of cheese a month unexpectedly shut down last fall after 110 years due to pandemic-specific industry volatility. A shutdown like this is very rare, and left farmers scrambling for new processors to offload their milk.

Milk prices were at a record high in 2014, then from 2015 on, went down. When prices are good, small dairy farmers, able to finally turn a profit, make longstanding crucial repairs on the smaller scale, and do some significant expansions on the large level. In early 2015 in Green county farmers were so confident in expanding that if you wanted to put up a building, you were lucky if you could find an available contractor. But the good times never last.

“The milk price only comes up a few times a year, just enough to tease ’em. Then it drops again,” Cory said. “When the farmers call us to auction their herd, they’re saying ‘Screw this, we’re going to go work in town or off the farm.’ It affects so many people. When a dairy goes out, the local feed store, the local hardware store, the whole local economy is affected.” Larger farmers can look across the country to find the best price for anything they need.

Cory didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, but like most everyone in Green county, being involved in the industry somehow was a given. He’s seeing that change. “It sucks for my 10 and 12 year old. When my uncle sold out a month ago, I made a point to get my boys over there to milk a cow so they can grow up and at least say they have done it,” he said.

His job requires him to witness the final day of countless dairy farms; his outlook on the future of the industry reflects that. “There will be no family farm. The kids don’t go into it, why would they? Get cow shit all over you, work 19-hour days, and not have a paycheck. Unless the family has old money, there ain’t no future in dairy, none at all.”

Mark Stephenson, the director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the industry definitely has a lot of challenges but is nowhere near extinction.

“We’ve produced record amounts of milk in the last year or two. It’s being consumed. Most of it domestically, but increasingly with exports,” said Stephenson.

Last year, tankers were loading up milk and driving it straight to the farm’s manure pit, opening the valve, and letting it go – milk dumping like this is quite extreme. Yet even in a year that started with unprecedented dumping, cows being culled, and milk sold at very distressed prices, then continuing with a milk price of $13 per 100 pounds (£9.32 per 45 kg) of milk in the spring and summer – which is less than the cost of production for most farmers 2020 ended with a high demand for cheese. This was thanks in part to the government’s pandemic food assistance programs. By the end of the year the state’s dairy farms again increased total production to 30.7bn pounds (13.9bn kg) of milk. And on it goes.

Stephenson said farms used to be able to make a living with 15 or 20 cows just a generation or two ago.

“You could hardly find a farm like that now. That does not exist. Now we would look at a 100 cow farm and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that quaint?’” he said. The attrition rate in Wisconsin for dairy farming is about 3 – 5% annually (in 2019 it was 10%), and as with farming across the country and specialties, it’s hard to find new farmers to hand a family farm off to. Stephenson said, “Now we’ve got, at least, a couple generations that have gotten to the point that they’ve never been on a farm and if they get there, they would just probably go, ‘Oh boy. That smells bad.’”

The industry may have staying power, but as one made up of fewer, larger operations. Stephenson thinks large farms, those with more than 500 cows, are the way of the future.

“Those quaint red barns that you are used to seeing on green hillsides with black and white cows in the fields, that just doesn’t exist anymore. Those barns over time will begin to rot and fall down,” he said. “That image that people have of what dairy farming is has to evolve into what is much more the reality now and those are large barns that house thousands of cows.”

“I drive by Pinnacle a lot. It’s disgusting. There’s potholes everywhere because there’s a semi in and out of there every hour,” said Emily Harris, a fourth-generation farmer, of the CAFO that has moved into the county. “It kinda makes you sick. It’s just a huge building, you don’t even see one cow.”

Emily and her wife Brandi, both 39, live in Monroe, a small city in Green county about 40 miles south of Madison. After ten years, they stopped dairy farming on a Monday. “May 6 of 2019, the cows left,” Emily said. Forty cows left on a double-decker trailer headed for farms in New York and Indiana. That Tuesday, Emily started her job at a nearby excavating company as an equipment operator.

They used farm equipment that looked like antiques and went without making crucial repairs. They did everything they could to keep milking, pushing hay into holes in the barn to stop the wind in especially cold years.

Emily cried for a week prior. Brandi, held out until the day they left, then lost it. “They are your life, seven days a week,” Brandi said. They’d taken turns working off-farm jobs, as many farm families do.

“I think we made money two of the years?” Emily asked looking over to Brandi, who shrugs. They’d had a decent organic contract, which generally pay more than conventional milk, but the new contract was suddenly going to be $20 (£14) less per 100 pounds of milk, down from $37 (£26). Emily said, “We were just watching the milk price go down, down, down.”

Emily’s advice for dairy farmers is blunt: “If they’re under 300 cows, just quit. It’s not worth it. You can’t turn a profit anymore. I think the small dairy farmer is gone. It’s a sad deal.”

Just 20 minutes down the road, around the same time the Harrises were starting their farm, Dan Truttmann, a fifth-generation farmer, was expanding his. “I wanted to get myself and my dad out of the milking parlor. We were at risk of wearing out, emotionally and physically,” he said. He unceremoniously lifts one of about 20 barn cats out of an office chair next to desks near the milking parlor and the calf pen to check one of the dusty laptops keeping track of weight, feeding habits, temperatures, milk production and other vitals for every one of his 425 milking cows.

Before milk prices hit the downward trajectory they’ve remained on the last six years, dairy farmers commonly doubled their herds, as Truttmann did, and just let their processor knowthey’d be shipping out more milk. Truttmann said, “Now some of them are saying, ‘Don’t you dare send us an extra load without our permission.’”

Truttmann, who is 53, has nine employees helping himself, his brother, and his dad on the farm, which has been in his family since 1899. “It’s just not really likely that somebody with minimal education in the area could just buy a farm. You used to kind of think about that, like, well, if you can’t do anything else, you can always farm. Boy, that is not true at all today,” he said.

He works up to 80 hours a week, getting up at five in the morning, an hour after 3,500 gallons (13,200 litres) of milk is picked up from his farm every day and taken to a local processor to be made into cheese for retail (which cushioned him from pandemic-specific blows to dairy farmers who sell to cheese processors for restaurants and schools). Green county’s dairy farmers sell directly to cheese makers or co-ops, no one sells fluid milk.

Truttmann’s three kids aren’t interested in farming, but he’s hopeful that a nephew may be. He knows it’s a hard sell – in good times, profit margins are about 10%. “When feed costs are high or hauling costs are shifted, all of a sudden there’s nothing left,” he said.

His favorite job on the farm is getting hours-old calves to bottle feed. He marches into a pen cradles the calf and patiently gets her to suckle – the trick is putting her nose on his wrist, which makes her mouth open automatically. He wants her to get used to him, to understand this is her caregiver from day one.

Back in his house, out of his rubber boots with his ankles crossed, he said, “I don’t think we’re different from any other industry where as times change, you either change with them or get left behind. And that’s the sad, hard reality of it. And even those that modernize are still at some risk of being washed out. It’s always a gamble.” He paused. “Hope sustains the farmer. That’s what the sign says on my back door.”

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