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From the front lines: A Pennsylvanian looks at the victims of the current dairy crisis

Melissa A. Bravo for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 September 2018
Cows being sold

In the August issue, I reviewed three sources of published data on the status of the dairy industry in Pennsylvania and came away with the understanding that, by all reports (NASS, PAMMB, Federal Milk Market Orders 01, 05, 33), milk cow numbers have barely fluctuated in the state since 2013.

But this number is not an actual accounting of state “herd size.” It is an “estimate” based on historical data and a small subset of producer surveys. I question whether it is accurate to assume Pennsylvania has a surplus of milk production but not cows?

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Could it be the dramatic changes in scale of production, product consumption and sampling pool methodology used to collect information on the pulse of the nation’s dairy industry is ill-suited to evaluate the magnitude of the current dairy situation?

When I started researching this topic earlier this year, I spoke to a lot of people, including dairy interest groups, government officials and dairy farmers. I thought I would be able to pinpoint the root cause of this dairy crisis. I asked them: Do we know how many victims we have so far statewide?

I discovered they knew just about as much as I did.

It is now September and, despite increased interest and awareness, a solution to stabilize milk prices above cost of production has not materialized. Dairy farmers, milk buyers and milk processors in Pennsylvania and around the country continue to go out of business.

Who are the victims?

I reviewed dairy herd dispersal auctions (focusing on cows) and AMS National Dairy Cow Slaughter reports from 2018. This snapshot is by far an incomplete picture of what has happened to our nation’s dairy industry. But it is enough, I think, to put the casualty list into perspective.

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I’ll begin on Jan. 12, 2018, with the 65-cow dispersal at the Boduch Farm in Crivitz, Wisconsin. Yes, I know, it’s not Pennsylvania, and it’s a small herd. But the dairy crisis is not just a Pennsylvania problem, and Wisconsin is the nation’s barometer for the dairy industry.

All it takes for the domino effect to gain momentum is one small farm toppling. Pennsylvania is right behind Wisconsin for number of small farm owners who earn a living milking cows. We have a lot of Boduch Farm-size dairy herds in Pennsylvania.

At least we did.

Hopefully Boduch Farm’s cows went on to milk again; 53,700 head did not the week before their sale. That number is according to the USDA-AMS weekly dairy cattle slaughtered report released Jan. 6.

Let’s move on to Jan. 19, 2018; 550 cows at Char-Mar Farm in Jefferson, Maryland, were slated to enter the sale ring. This week 65,700 dairy cows went to slaughter and another 68,100 head went the week of Jan. 20.

A few days later, MD-Carroll’s 55-cow herd in Ronks, Pennsylvania, was auctioned on Jan. 25. Another 65,700 head were slaughtered the week of Jan. 27.

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I found this statistic astonishing: 253,200 dairy cows, or 2.69 percent of the national herd, went to slaughter in the first four weeks of January. The NASS Feb. 22 slaughter report captures the fifth week of January, for a total of 289,800 dairy cows slaughtered. Since then, others have gone out of business.

For example, John King of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, is the first dairy herd dispersal (70 cows) in February I came across when I started looking at auction archives for this article.

I do know the Litchys of Mansfield, Pennsylvania. They dispersed their 64-cow herd on April 6, 2018. I’ve known Ron Wood of Gor-Wood D Holsteins in Mainesburg, Pennsylvania, for 25 years. His 130-head dispersal was held April 20. That sale, according to the auctioneer, was one of the highest-BAA-classifying herds in the world.

“Our BAA was over 110 for years,” Wood says. Here is my firsthand account of just one of hundreds of heart-wrenching, worst-day-of-my-life dairy herd dispersal stories from this year. I was present at Wood’s dispersal sale and wrote the following account:

It was a beautiful sunny day under a sale tent full of prospective buyers, until a mini-blizzard struck and the mood of the crowd reflected the temperature plummet. “For every season there is a time, and this is the time,” rasped Wood in an emotional goodbye to his ladies.

You know what he did next? He broke our hearts, thanking each and every single person who helped him get through this mind-numbing event. He thanked the 74-year-old farmer pulled out of retirement to clip his cows. He thanked his neighbors, who milked their herd first, then his – and then repeated that again at the end of the day, week after week while he recovered from an illness.

He thanked his veterinarians, feed suppliers and even me for doing what I was doing to try to help the plight of the farmers in our community. But, most of all, he talked about his mom (deceased) and his dad (Gordon) and his family, and the tragedies and health problems that brought him to this terrible day.

“This is my mother’s farm, and me and Dad made a good team for the 48 years we’ve done this. We are the only father and son who made the Pennsylvania Holstein Hall of Fame, and we’ve had 14 Excellents and 250 Excellent home-bred cows. I’ll almost guarantee that for two generations you can’t get better than these girls,” Ronnie exclaimed in a voice choked with emotion.

I won’t write what we felt when he asked for a moment of silence for the three people who lost their lives on the farm, including his own nephew. Afterwards, Ronnie said, “I just want you to take my cows back with you and give them a good home.”

Donald Jennings, 86, sat to my left along with Jay Heise, 84. They reminisced about the unchanging dairy milk prices, escalating costs of production and trucking fees seen in their lifetime – and what this sale means to the future of dairy in our county.

As I write this article, Gordon Wood turned 92 years old. “I’ve never seen it this bad,” he told me.

Neither have I, and that’s why I am writing about it.

I remember the buyouts in the 1980s. I was just a teenager, aware but not cognitive of what a buyout truly meant. I am now, and I have only looked at auction catalogs for 92 dairy farmers from 16 states and their collective 10,914 milking cows.

We all know the casualty list is much longer than my search. For example, Wisconsin lost 500 farms in 2017. Another 338 dairy farms have stopped shipping milk as of June 2018.

I am not OK with that.

No one here in Pennsylvania is saying how many farmers have stopped milking. I find it alarming the state is not tracking this exodus more closely. Does your state know how many farmers have stopped milking?

Pennsylvania had more than 8,700 dairies 10 years ago. However, according to an FMMO administrator report, there were only 5,793 in 2017.

I would speculate we have fewer than 5,000 producers now.  end mark

PHOTO: A Pennsylvanian looks at the victims of the current dairy crisis. Courtesy photo.

Melissa A. Bravo
  • Melissa A. Bravo

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