When Alfred Brandt was growing up in the 1970s, the family’s dairy farm was one of about 40 in Osage County, and most of them were small operations with about 50 milking cows. Today, there are only five dairy farms in the mid-Missouri county, and they all have at least twice that many cows so they can stay in business.
Since 2000, the number of dairy farms in Missouri has dropped 54 percent, from 1,796 to 895.
The past five years have been particularly hard on farmers because droughts have caused relatively low crop yields and high costs for grasses, grains and other feed. When feed costs add up to more than 50 percent of the budget to run a dairy farm, Brandt said dairymen typically sell their cows and depend on other types of farming income.
The Missouri General Assembly passed the Dairy Revitalization Act in May as a way to help farmers meet their costs when bad weather ruins crops and as a way to bring new farmers into the dairy business.
Read more: “The Dairy Revitalization Act: How It Works“
The dairy act would set up a state fund to subsidize up to 70 percent of the cost of insurance premiums purchased through the national Farm Bill. Gov. Jay Nixon has until July 14 to decide whether to sign the act into law. The bill could cost over $4 million in general revenue funds beginning in 2016, depending on the number of farmers that choose to enroll.
The Missouri dairy industry employs around 24,000 workers and contributes $2 billion to the state’s annual GDP.
Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association, said he hopes Nixon will sign the bill.
“This industry has really been taken for granted in this state for a long time,” Drennan said. “Unless something is done, you’re putting processing plants and farms at risk.”
Drennan attributes the decline to several factors, including: economic conditions, a lack of labor, aging farmers and the expensive entry price of the business.
Most current dairy farmers either inherited the business or got into the dairy industry in the 1970s or 1980s when it did not require such a hefty startup cost.
The cost of feed back then was lower, and the price of milk was higher. That’s a luxury that the business no longer has, Brandt said. When Brandt was growing up, the cost of getting into the dairy industry was around $30,000. Now, he estimates it would require approximately $5 million in initial land, building and cow costs; a price that most young farmers are just not able to afford.
Brandt bought the 235-acre farm near Linn from his parents in 2009, and has been managing the farm since the late 1990s after finishing college and moving back home.
“I’ve always enjoyed being around cows,” Brandt said. “I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else.”
Brandt’s day begins around 5 a.m., and he finishes milking the cows by just after 8 a.m. The rest of the morning and afternoon is spent distributing feed, cleaning the barn, hauling manure and fixing things. The cows are milked once more at around 5 p.m. by a part-time employee.
“Working on the farm has taught me to be responsible and a hard worker,” Brandt said. “I won’t quit until a job is done right.”
Brandt, who is 46, is married and has a 2-year-old son. His 71-year-old father comes to the farm around 5:45 a.m. every morning to help him milk the cows.
He grows some of the grains that feed his cows, like alfalfa hay and corn, while he has other grains trucked in. Finding those suppliers has become more of a task now than it was several years ago.
Suppliers used to make trips all across the state servicing clients and seeking out new ones. Now, most feed companies make fewer trips to rural farms, which means higher costs for Brandt and other farmers.
“It takes a lot of perseverance,” Brandt said. “I enjoy doing it so I don’t get down about the cyclical nature of the industry.”
Drennan said many people don’t realize how dependent agriculture is on the weather. “We are price takers, not price makers,” he said.
Larry Purdon, a dairy farmer and chairman of the Missouri Dairy Association, has been in the business for more than 50 years, and he believes the loss of farmers is taking a toll.
“Agriculture is the biggest and most important industry in Missouri,” Purdon said. “People need to understand we have not been able to produce enough milk for Missouri’s needs. I would hate to see Missourians be the best customers of Texas or New Mexico.”