Dairy farmers slammed by economic downturn


While the cattle and swine industries have received their fair share of attention concerning the recent downturn in prices, dairy farmers have also been experiencing the pain. In Kansas and across the country, producers find themselves with too much milk and not enough markets.

Lynda and Gary Foster have operated a family dairy for more than 33 years in Bourbon County. The couple met while attending Kansas State University and Lynda said Gary was literally the boy next door.

More than three decades later, son David now works in the family business. They milk 130 Holstein dairy cows twice a day.

If anyone epitomizes the ideal dairy producers today, it would be the Fosters. They work hard and smart, and use the latest technology in their milking operation. Lynda has served on state and national dairy promotion boards. She currently serves on the Kansas Dairy Association board.

They?ve always managed their operation optimally, ever looking for better ways to trim feed costs and make their milking business more economical while still getting the most milk out of their cows using the best genetics.

In spite of their fierce dedication and investment in the dairy vocation, the last two years have not been kind to the Fosters and other family dairy businesses.

?It has been the most stressful year, financially, we?ve ever experienced,? Lynda said.

This is ironic because 2007 was a great year for milk producers in Kansas and across the United States. Dairy farmers were receiving more than $20 a hundredweight for their milk, but when the economy went south, it took along these profitable prices.

?About this time, our export market for milk had picked up, but now these countries couldn?t afford to buy milk, and everything backed up,? Lynda said. ?You just can?t tell those cows to quit producing milk overnight. It takes time to reduce production.?

At the tail end of 2008, milk prices began to drop, and by mid 2009 they had fallen to unseen levels?down to $9 a hundredweight in some instances. At the same time cow feed, such as soybean meal jumped from $180 to $523 a ton.

It?s backed off some, but it?s still more than $300 a ton, and even at that price it?s impossible to make ends meet, Lynda said. There just aren?t many alternatives for a protein source.

With a 130-head cowherd like theirs, the Fosters are losing $12,000 a month. Milk producers can only keep that up for so long.

?We?re using up our family?s equity,? Lynda said in a whisper. ?Thank goodness we have a good banker who?s not ready to milk cows yet and is willing to stick with us and understands there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Our problem is, we don?t know how long that tunnel is.?

In spite of this difficult year and eroding farm equity, the Fosters remain optimistic about their farming future. They also realize that others in the ag community and other sectors of the economy are also struggling.

Lynda said she believes the answer for their industry is a stronger economy and increased export markets.

?There are still people in our country and the world who need to eat and drink the products we provide,? Lynda said. ?That?s why we do what we do by providing a nutritious product.?

And even though the price of milk has increased on the shelves of grocery stores, it still remains one of the most inexpensive sources of nutrition.

Milk costs about 25 cents per eight-ounce glass, and you receive so much nutrition including calcium, protein and other essential nutrients, Lynda said.

?I can?t stress to youngsters, teens, adults and everyone how important it is to drink milk daily,? she said. ?We?re living in a world where people are calcium deficient. Everyone needs to consume milk, cheese and yogurt every day?at least three servings of dairy products daily.?

With the pendulum swinging ever so slowly back toward better economic times, more people here and around the world will once again begin to upgrade their diets. At the same time, dairy farmers like the Fosters can once again do what they do best, increase their production of nutritious milk.


John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.