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By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Dairy farms getting milked dry

Posted 11/22/16 (Tue)

In 1934 there were more dairy cows in North Dakota than people. A total of 700,000 has slowly but steadily dwindled to about 15,000 today, the equivalent population of Jamestown.

Something can be said about those who kept dairy cows to help feed the family through those difficult years in the Dirty ‘30s.

It was also a time in North Dakota when crops didn’t grow because of the lack of moisture. That lingered for four years and became  known as the Dust Bowl.

So how do you feed 700,000 dairy cows when feed isn’t readily available? Call it Yankee ingenuity. Farmers found ways to make it happen.

So why can’t it be done today? Keeping a dairy is expensive, most everyone knows that. Feed, labor, transportation and veterinary costs don’t allow dairy producers much of a profit margin on the milk they sell.

It’s odd that North Dakota leads the nation in more than 10 crops and ag commisioner Doug Goehring is always quick to point that out during conventions and in private conversations.

Seldom does he talk about the dairy industry perhaps because it’s an embarrassment to a state that prides itself in agriculture.

In 2015, North Dakota was 35th in the nation in dairy production and most of that was concentrated in seven counties; Morton, Emmons, Stark, Logan, Stutsman, Oliver and McIntosh.

It was also in 1934 that all 53 counties had at least one dairy farm. Today, 10 of them don’t have any dairies and 21 others have just one dairy farm in each county.

In recent years, A Dutch family via Canada, and a Canadian family came to North Dakota to start dairies. The Dutch family is reportedly doing well in Foster County while the other moved back to Ontario after a short time working at a large dairy near Parshall that has been vacant more time than not since being built.

The 5-Star Dairy near Milnor, which was once touted as saving the dairy industry in North Dakota, is now bankrupt.

Word on the street is dairy farming is like any other kind of farming, you have to get bigger to stay in business. And when you do that, your labor cost will escalate and overwhelm you.

Is that true, or is that just what everyone else is doing?

A Pennsylvania family recently bought a farm in Emmons County, is milking 70 cows and doing well. Quite a contrast from 1,500-cow dairy in Milnor.

I would be willing to bet that none of the dairies in the ‘30s had 1,500 cows, or even 1,000 for that matter. They were all small dairies that helped make ends meet and each one usually had one hired hand, or one paycheck to write instead of 50 to 100 like some are doing today.

So how can North Dakota’s dairy industry be revived before it collapses completely? Changing the corporate farming law wasn’t the answer. The voters don’t want corporate dairies.

So what else can be done short of begging and pleading and throwing beaucoup dineros at people?

The answer might just be with the Dutch family in Foster County that is milking about 700 cows.

The ag department needs to take some risks and find producers outside the region, producers who would be intrigued with coming to a new place to milk cows and be away from government intervention and regulation overreach.

In recent years hundreds of dairy farmers in Quebec either quit milking cows or have moved out of the province because of government regulations, taxation and restrictions on exporting dairy products to the United States.

That’s where North Dakota should be looking. Culture is similar, climate is similar and there’s even French radio and TV along our northern border.

Many of them were disgruntled and it probably wouldn’t take a lot of convincing if some financial incentives were put into place.

California is another place to do some heavy recruiting. There are large dairies in California and many are profitable. The problem there, however, is water.

It takes a tremendous amount of water to operate a dairy farm and stay up to code for cleanliness.

We all know that water is in short supply in California and is becoming more sparse as its cities continue to grow rapidly.

There’s plenty of space, plenty of water and plenty of small towns here that are very similar to those in northern California.

I’ve always wondered how dairies can be so successful in Wisconsin, yet they fail miserably in North Dakota. Maybe we look at the Wisconsin model and run with it.