In 2009, milk prices dropped so low that dairy farmers lost up to half their income. Some had to slaughter their cows because they couldn’t afford to feed them anymore. Others decided enough was enough, and sold their animals and their land.WUWM’s Erin Toner visits a family near Slinger who made it through last year, but just barely.
It’s five o’clock on a Saturday night, and the Mayer family has been out milking their cows for about an hour. It’ll be another three hours before they’re done, then they’ll march back out to the barn at midnight to do it all over again. Cassie, a curly-haired, 18-year-old, is the Mayer’s daughter. She’s helping her dad clean the cows’ udders before attaching the milking equipment.
“We’ll strip her out to make sure she’s all clean and then we’ll dip her so no infection can get in. And then when it’s time to put the machine on, we’ll towel her off and she’ll milk for about three minutes,” Cassie says.
While there are more huge dairy farms these days, most in Wisconsin are smaller, family operations, like the Mayer’s. They milk 63 cows on their land about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Mom Shelly says the Mayers have a traditional Wisconsin-style barn, where you move the milk machine from cow to cow.
“In here, one thing that we like about it, is we like working close to the animal. So literally, we’re looking and we’re right in by the cow three times a day,” Shelly says.
On more modern dairy farms, the cows are moved from their barns to a milk house. Once there, sophisticated computer programs can monitor the process. Shelly says her family relies on visual observation to make sure the animals are producing the right quantity and quality of milk.
The Mayers are also traditional in their longevity. They’re the fourth generation to run the family farm, and Shelly says it wasn’t something she and her husband Dwight were forced into.
“Dwight graduated from Madison. He’s got a degree in dairy science. And my degree is in dairy science and ag journalism. I always wanted to farm also, so for us, this was an opportunity to do what we’ve always wanted to do,” Shelly says.
What they do is simple, yet sophisticated. While the Mayers don’t have other animals on the farm and don’t own land to grow feed for their cows, they do raise some of the best.
“We’re really, really good at taking care of cows,” Shelly says.
They look and act like normal cows. But line these gals up with your average cow, and you’ll notice a difference.
“We want our cows to be tall. We want them to be straight and strong over the back, and have legs that allow them to be mobile. A good, high-producing dairy cow is like a very efficient athlete,” Shelly says.
The Mayer family has been known for breeding these high-end cows and bulls for four generations. Then they sell the animals, or their embryos, to other farmers who want higher-performing herds. The money from those sales supplements the Mayer’s milk income. Dwight says doing something extra like this became crucial when the economy went south.
“It’s getting harder and harder, depending on the years, as far as crops and stuff, that’s what determines whether or not you’re going to have a profitable year because the milk price is always fluctuating,” Dwight says.
As the milk machines do their job tonight, Dwight tells me that in 2009, the average farmer’s income was about half what it was the year before. That’s because there was worldwide decline in demand for dairy products, and at the same time, the cost to feed dairy herds went up. Dwight says beyond selling animals and embryos, the family’s saving grace was Shelly’s job as head of a dairy trade group.
“Quite honestly, if my wife didn’t work off the farm, this past year we might have sold the cows. But we had an income from outside the farm, and families that didn’t have that option, there was a lot of farms that sold the cows and take a job in town, whatever and move on,” Dwight says.
But even Shelly’s outside income wasn’t enough. Like many other farmers, the Mayers had to go back to the bank and borrow more money. He says young farmers, who were in even more debt to begin with, were hit hardest.
“You see the auction listings in the paper, an old guy’s retiring, but there’s been a lot of young farmers that have left the business just because there’s no money. And you just keep digging a hole and a certain point you gotta pull the plug and say, ‘Let’s get out of this before we’re in debt after we sell everything,’” Dwight says.
The Mayers say there were several times last year when they asked each other, “Can we make it? How bad do we want to keep doing this?” Shelly would tell Dwight yes, she thought they were going to be OK. And he would tell her there was nothing else he wanted to do.
But a lot of farmers decided not to continue, and Dwight says they add another layer to a story he sees unfolding all around him. Farmers were disappearing even before the milk market went bust. “One, two, three, four developments…”
He’s counting the number of new subdivisions within a mile of his farm. And go just a bit farther out… “Within a mile-and-a-half of us, there are, I counted one day, nine developments that are five years old or newer,” Dwight says.
It all used to be farmland, but over the years, developers offered farmers deals they just couldn’t pass up. Dwight says there were clues years ago, that his world was getting smaller. A nearby farm hosted an ag conference.
“1995, they hosted a farm progress show, which is probably the biggest ag event in the state every year. And the theme at the time was 'Farming on the Urban Edge.' And today that farm is a subdivision,” Dwight says.
Dwight says he doesn’t know what the local farming community will look like in the future. He certainly cannot afford to buy any more land, not when it’s going for more than $20,000 an acre.
Dwight goes back to milking, and I follow 18-year-old Cassie to the calf barn, where she’s gathering buckets to prepare the young cows’ feed. Cassie says she and her brothers basically grew up in here, and as babies, had a habit of eating the pellets they fed the animals.
Cassie moves on to bottle feeding a hungry four-day-old calf, while her brother, 13-year-old Dylan gets going on his chores in the barn.
“I need to keep them fully clean and dry so that we minimize the amount of sickness that comes up here. Cause otherwise, if we lose a heifer, it’s a lot of money lost and stuff,” Dylan says.
In fact, the Mayers just lost a calf a few days ago, and Dylan says that’s really hard because there’s just nothing you can do. Dylan says farming for a living wouldn’t be his first choice – he’d rather play football. Cassie, meantime, will head off to UW Madison next year to study veterinary medicine, and hopes to work with large animals one day. Their older brother, Devin, is at UW River Falls studying dairy science and ag business. He wants to take over the farm when his parents retire.
Dad Dwight is happy with Devin’s plans, but hopes he doesn’t come home too soon.
“We told him he’s gotta get a degree, want him to do something else for a little while, whether it’s working at another farm or working some sort of ag industry. Because, once you step into farming, you better be sure that’s what you want to do because of the investment involved. Once you’re in, you’re in,” Dwight says.
Dwight’s wife Shelly says even though 2009 is behind them, everyone in agriculture is still nervous. She says milk prices improved for about six weeks, but then fell back again, meaning farmers cannot pay off those additional loans they took out last year. Some will now need another loan to cover this year’s expenses, but Shelly says the banks have become much more conservative and are starting to decline loans and foreclose on farms.
She says surviving this downturn will depend on how tolerant and understanding bankers are and how strong and innovative a farm was before the recession.
Last year, the Mayers hung up a new sign in their kitchen. It says, “Life isn’t about weathering the storm, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”