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1106 PD: Bischoff Dairy is one of few left in Fremont County, Idaho

Published on 10 November 2006

Darwin Bischoff of Wilford, Idaho, is one of the last producers still milking cows in his area. He says that 20 years ago there were six dairies within a mile of his home. Now there are about that many in his county.

“We know the people who are dairying,” Bischoff says. “We see them in town. Usually we say, ‘How are you holding out with the low prices?’”

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Low milk prices have forced out some producers in Fremont County, Idaho. But when Bischoff lists the reasons his neighbors have quit, there are almost as many reasons as there are retired producers. Bad health, a lifestyle change and a government buyout are among the reasons Bischoff names for the local dwindling of producers.

Yet Bischoff has so far beaten the national trend that has affected his own region.

Since 1980, the number of dairy operations in the United States has fallen 75 percent, according to the USDA. The average dairy population now hovers just above Bischoff Dairy’s size at 111 cows.

For the Bischoffs, there were plenty of opportunities to quit.

In 1976, Bischoff and his father Harold, a second-generation dairy producer, were going to brand and dehorn calves, when a neighbor stopped them on the road. The neighbor asked if Bischoff had any kids fishing on the Teton River. The informant said officials were having some problems with the river’s dam and water was rising.

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“We had a pump on the river. We went to move it, but, well, we didn’t get that far,” Darwin says.

That day about 80 billion gallons of water would rush past the Upper Snake River Valley, flooding Bischoff Dairy. For days after the Teton Dam flood, the Bischoffs milked by generator. The flood displaced some of the dairy’s calves, but the Bischoffs later accounted for all their livestock.

Darwin married and continued to work on the dairy in 1984. Shortly thereafter, the farm steadily expanded from 70 cows to its present size of 100 in order to support two families. Darwin’s wife, Dorothy, also went to work shortly after they were married. Her income makes up about one-third of the family’s net income.

“[The income] helps the household run a little bit better,” Dorothy says.

Her income pays for medical and other unexpected family expenses that would otherwise be paid for on credit.

Throughout the United States, dairy producers report they receive about a third of their total income from an off-farm source. That is significantly less than other farm sectors which report that about 90 percent of their income comes from an off-farm source.

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Yet the Bischoff’s 100-cow dairy barely supports one family now. Darwin says he has seen low milk prices before, but this year’s latest round has been exceptionally bad because of higher input costs.

“This year is not the worst we’ve seen per hundred, but when you factor in the expense side of it, it’s probably as bad as any,” Darwin says.

Many dairy and agricultural producers have already noticed costs are cutting into their profits. A recent USDA and Economic Research Service (ERS) report showed total production expenses will rise 4.8 percent this year. This would continue a four-year increase in total expenses. Including this year’s anticipated increase, these same expenses have increased 22.4 percent since 2002.

Topping the list of more expensive inputs are fuel and feed. This year the cost of fuel is expected to increase 11.9 percent and feed is expected to increase 10.4 percent.

“Everything goes up, but the price to the farmer doesn’t,” Darwin says.

Harold recently “retired” at the age of 71, selling the farm to his son. Darwin hopes he can continue to beat the odds and make the farm’s income competitive with rising expenses. He would like the family’s third-generation dairy farm to last another generation and be passed on to his 9-year-old son Caleb.

Darwin says he takes comfort in the camaraderie of the remaining dairy producers in his area. Those producers fight the same battle.

“We understand what each other is going through and the hours involved,” Darwin says. PD

A third-generation dairy that is making ends meet to remain standing.
by Walt Cooley, PD Editor

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