Midwest drought hurts dairy farmers in region
Share with others:
Local farmers got some much needed rain in the past few weeks, but a continuing drought in the Midwest is still hurting dairy farmers in this region.
The worst drought in 25 years for Midwest corn farmers is causing soaring prices for feed -- while Pennsylvania farmers are facing lower prices for their milk.
Wayne Frye, 59, of Salem, is the largest dairy farmer in Westmoreland County. He has about 560 cows and milks about 300 each day.
Mr. Frye feeds his cows a steady mixture of corn, soybean meal and hay.
He grows most of his own feed crops, but still has to buy soybean meal in Ohio because the oil content of his own soybeans is too high for the animals.
"The price of corn because of the drought in the Midwest seems to drive everything," he said. Corn is now at $8 a bushel, up about 50 percent over last year.
"When the price of corn goes up, so does the price of soybeans," he said. And that price has doubled.
"Last year, the price of soybean meal was $300 a ton, now it is about $600 a ton," he said.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a disaster relief bill for livestock farmers, including dairy farmers, last week because of soaring feed costs, but the Senate adjourned for six weeks without considering it. Farmers who grow corn can get crop insurance to get them through tough years, but livestock farmers don't have that safety net.
The price of milk for farmers in Pennsylvania is set by a state milk marketing board. But Mr. Frye said farmers don't understand how the milk marketing board determines the monthly regional prices.
"They don't take the price of feed into consideration," Mr. Frye said.
"We make 20,000 pounds of milk a day," Mr. Frye said, "so we're losing about $1,000 a day at the current milk price of $17.50 for 100 pounds, from when the milk price was $22 for 100 pounds."
"If you're a farmer paying $8 a bushel for corn and selling milk for $17 a 100 pound, you're losing money," he said.
Craig Lash, 55, a dairy farmer from Sewickley Township, doesn't think people know how tough it is for local farmers these days. He milks about 50 cows on his farm.
He said the price for milk is "terrible" right now, so dairy farmers are caught in the middle.
"It was good during the winter, the price was up to about $23 for 100 pounds," he said. "I don't understand how the government sets the price. And when the weather is dry, like it was a few weeks ago, our cows don't produce as much, either. I don't see how they can drop the price."
John Lohr, director of farm services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Greensburg, said many area farmers are forced to buy feed grain.
"We have a grain deficit in this area, so some of our farmers have to import it," Mr. Lohr said.
Mr. Lohr said there are some farmers who only grow feed corn in the region, but he said there are no local crushing plants, so most take their corn to an ethanol plant in Clearfield County.
There is a federal program to help dairy farmers caught when milk prices fall, but it doesn't cover all of their losses.
Mr. Lohr said his office just sent out monthly support payments to 60 Westmoreland and Fayette dairy farmers for an average of $1,000-$2,000 because of the low milk prices.
But Mr. Lash said those support payments don't come close to making up for the falling milk prices.
"I'm losing $2,000 a month in milk checks (from when the price was $23) and getting a support check for $200."
A majority of the 120 farms in Westmoreland County are dairy farmers, with some beef and hog farmers.
But their numbers are declining,
"Thirty five years ago when I started, we had 250 dairy farmers in Westmoreland County," Mr. Lohr said. "Now we have maybe 50. And one sold his cows last week and got out of the business."
"The day of the small, one person farm, with 30-50 cows is gone," he said. "It's just brutal, working seven days a week."
"I think that's why we lost one of our dairy farmers last week. He decided to sell his cows and get out of the business. He's at the stage of his life when he wants a day off here and there."
The costs of farm equipment and planting crops are also huge.
"I planted 80 acres in corn," said Mr. Lash, "and it cost me $14,000 for the seed, fertilizer and spray. And then you hope it's going to grow."
When it doesn't, farmers are at the mercy of the rising price for feed.
"Corn costs $8 a bushel," he said, "that's outrageous if you have to buy it for the animals. Those making milk can't survive."
The federal government's support for ethanol is another reason corn prices are so high. Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop goes into ethanol production, which is used to make cleaner burning gasoline for vehicles.
But not all of the corn is used in that process, Mr. Lohr said. He said a mash byproduct is left, which is used by cattle farmers for feed.
"I don't understand how any young farmers would want to get into the business when you can't make any money at it," said Mr. Lash. "You have to milk the cows twice a day, seven days a week, so there's no vacations."
He said the average age of farmers is 54, and he doesn't see any young people getting into the business.
"I guess we're just going to have these huge farms, where there are 15,000 cows. The small farmer is disappearing."
First Published August 9, 2012 4:54 am