That being said, Foster said her mood isn’t dramatically different heading into 2020 compared to a year ago, even though the outlook for milk prices is somewhat better.
“I was concerned all of last year and, while milk prices did increase toward the end of the year, they only stayed there a month or two before going back down. One can’t pay all past bills on just a month or two of decent prices,” she said. “While our margins are improving, we still pay our bills one day at a time. If it wasn’t for our son’s outside businesses to help pay the bills, I’m not sure if we would still be in business.”
Foster cites recent statistics showing licensed dairy farms in Kansas are down to 256. She’s hearing more about farmer retirements and those exiting the industry – and hearing less about sons and daughters taking over the family business.
Even with robotic milkers, finding and retaining affordable labor is a challenge, as is the weather. Foster’s area received 70 inches of rain last year, 30 inches more than normal, and another wet year is forecast.
“All that rain makes it hard to get crops planted or harvested,” Foster said. “The feed quality is not the greatest, and the availability of purchasing quality alfalfa in our area is not good. It’s expensive, and the quality isn’t there.”
Despite the economic, weather and labor challenges, Foster said ongoing dairy farm expansions and increasing investments in robotic milkers are proof dairy farming is not on its deathbed. Increasing sales of whole fluid milk are also a positive.
“I do feel like our industry is getting bombarded with negative comments from the media, anti-dairy forces and Hollywood, of all places,” Foster said. “Farmers are tough and resilient, and we will continue to combat these negative messages with positive ones through social media and with the help of our checkoff organizations.”
While all the attention on Dean and Borden bankruptcies draws attention to the economic conditions of dairy, Foster said she believes those companies are no different than other companies in other industries that declare bankruptcy.
“I’m glad to be a cooperative member. I trust DFA to manage around it as they prepare for such things,” Foster said. “I think most producers who I talk with are just trying to diversify more so that all their eggs aren’t in one basket.”
Kimberly Clark, University of Nebraska Extension dairy educator, said producers she works with remain cautious in 2020. The Dean Foods bankruptcy has some nervous and wondering how they will be impacted.
Like many other states, Nebraska saw declining dairy farm and cow numbers last year, but production per cow was up.
“We’ve experienced quite a bit of change in the dairy industry over the last year – some positive and some negative,” Clark said. “We lost 15 percent of dairy farms in Nebraska in 2019 – much of this due to prices, and some was due to lack of available feed due to the flooding last spring.”
Producer morale and mood improved in the latter part of 2019 as milk prices increased, enabling some to pay down some debt. There’s hope the higher prices will last and aren’t just a mirage.
There are positive signs. Growth of dairy consumption – domestically and globally – provides uplifting news, Clark said. Additionally, she’s witnessed a number of next-generation dairy producers who are stepping into leadership roles on their farms and in the industry, with an understanding they need to be leaders to keep the industry moving forward.
“We have to focus on the positives and big picture of the industry,” Clark said. “This is what is going to keep the dairy industry moving forward, not the small group of anti-dairy. We cannot choose to focus on this small group and give them the attention they are seeking.”
About two-thirds of Nebraska’s milk production is shipped to out-of-state processors, and dairy leaders are actively seeking to grow that side of the industry.
The negative influence of last year’s flooding is lingering in feeds contaminated by mycotoxins and fears soil fungus will impact this crop year. The challenge of hiring and retaining labor continues; many farmers are addressing that by installing automated systems for calf feeding and milking.
- Progressive Dairy
- Email Dave Natzke