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1206 PD: A Christmas comeback for the Duncan's dairy

Published on 11 December 2006

Brent Duncan of Franklington, Louisiana, is most grateful this Christmas for normal weather. To a dairy producer in the Louisiana panhandle, cool temperatures and wet fall days are critical for winter survival. Both have been fantastic this fall, and optimism has replaced survival as the theme on Duncan’s dairy this Christmas.

“This is a whole a lot better than it was last year this time,” Duncan says. “I think it’s going to be back to normal.”

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Brent, a third-generation dairy producer, and his wife, Laurie, operate a 400-cow dairy just 70 miles north of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina’s damage overshadowed the Duncan’s last Christmas.

“It was definitely a different year. I hope to never experience a storm like that again,” Brent says.

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina approached the Louisiana-Mississippi coast. Unwilling to leave their cows for safer ground, the couple taped their home’s windows, hunkered down in a closet and began to pray. As the Category 3 hurricane’s eye passed the couple’s farm just 20 miles to the east, its winds swiped up pine and oak trees from the Duncans’ pasture and overturned cattle barns.

“I’ve got a new house, but it was making some noises and squeaking,” Brent says.

Brent stayed at home for his cows, but he admits he wasn’t thinking about them.

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Hearing the storm’s fury, Laurie was curious what her heifers were doing out on the farm’s pasture. Peeking out the closet through the front window, Laurie says she saw tin and shingles flying sideways in the wind. Through taped windows, she saw her cows running from one end of the pasture to the other.

After the storm was over, Laurie found the roof of the farm’s original dairy parlor had been torn off. But one of Laurie’s most memorable moments after the storm came while riding a four-wheeler rounding up the farm’s cows. Then she stumbled upon a newborn black heifer calved during the storm.

“I said, ‘Girl, you and me are going back to the barn,’” Laurie recalls.

The heifer, now named Katrina, will begin milking in 2007. None of the Duncans’ cows died during the storm.

“We were blessed,” Laurie says.

The Duncans know of dairy producers just miles away that lost their cows, farms and homes. Brent still says he hears of a dairy sale once a week in Louisiana.

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The USDA recently approved money to compensate dairy farmers for lost milk income in the weeks just after the storm, but some, including the state’s commissioner of agriculture, say the help is too late.

“It’s too late, much too late,” says Bob Odom, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry. “Every week there is another dairy cattle sale for people going out of business.”

However, Odom and other state officials helped dairy producers get diesel to run generators after the storm. With a permit, producers were allowed to get up to 100 gallons of fuel per day. Duncan says his parlor ran on a generator for 12 days.

The farm’s tractor-operated generator powered both the parlor and Duncan’s house. During the first days after the storm, neighbors came to shower and do laundry during milking hours. The Duncans usually fed barbeque to the group of six to eight people that came. They emptied two deep freezers full of meat and frozen vegetables in the days after the storm.

While the Duncans were well fed, Brent said he missed having a glass of milk every day. At one point, he opened the valve on his bulk tank to fill a coffee mug with milk. It was the first time he’d had raw milk since he was a kid.

“That was some of the best milk I’ve drank in a long time,” Brent says.

Clearing trees from roads, mending fences and repairing barns kept the Duncans and their neighbors busy last fall. But more than the hurricane’s short-lived damage, the weather that followed strained the Duncans and other producers.

Typical daytime fall temperatures in Louisiana range from 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But last year, temperatures remained in the 90s, and rain showers were scarce.

“We all wait each year for the fall,” Brent says. “Last year it just didn’t come.”

As a result, the rye grass crop that Duncan and other producers plant in the fall for winter green chop was weak. Finding feed was a challenge.

But even into this year, nature provided Duncan more setbacks. Another spring drought from the end of March through the first of July, keep feed at a premium. During the same period, Duncan was transitioning his herd to organic production. He bought organic hay from as far as Kansas and New Mexico to supplement his drought-stricken pasture.

Then there was more bad news. When the drought broke in July, Duncan woke one Sunday morning to find 24 of his cows dead from a lightning strike. And they were all confirmed-pregnant organic cows.

Between the hurricane and the lightening strike, Duncan estimates he has lost about $200,000. Yet, he says the switch to organic production has allowed him to take control of his own destiny and given him hope.

“Thank God we went through this organic transition,” Brent says.

Meteorologists predict what has been a normal weather pattern in the Southeast, including its cooler temperatures, will continue. That means more milk production for the Duncans.

“Winter is when we make our money,” Brent says.

So now Brent says the motto he’s been living by the last year and a half may finally produce a positive upturn in his bottom line. That motto – “Don’t give up. Don’t give in. And don’t give out.” – he heard from another organic dairy producer.

While receiving about $28 per hundredweight for organic milk, Duncan believes he may have finally weathered two storms – both Katrina and low conventional milk prices. PD

By PD Editor Walt Cooley

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