It was a tough day back in August when David Iles Jr. milked his cows for the last time. After that last milking, D.E. Iles Dairy of Littleton, N.C., was no more — Iles carried the last of the animals to market that same day.“The cows looked at me like they were saying, ‘What is this all about?’” Iles says.
Unfortunately, the dairyman from Halifax County is not alone in his story. The collapse of milk prices, combined with rising costs, have made North Carolina dairies an endangered species.
• For the first time, North Carolina is consuming more milk than it produces.
• Farmer plans to convert to a grass-fed beef production.
• This dairy, which opened in 1931, closed after 78 years in operation.
“Milk has gone from $24 per cwt. [hundredweight] to $12 per cwt., while the cost of feed, fertilizer and gas has been going up steadily this year,” Iles says. “You simply can’t make it. The average dairy farmer is losing $100 to $150 per cow, per month, and that is a totally unsustainable figure.”
A long history
What is ironic about Iles Dairy shutting down is that the business was started by Iles’ father during the Great Depression, and rode out many economic downturns before its death this year.
David Iles Sr. started the dairy in 1931, when a section foreman from the Seaboard Railroad was looking for someone to buy his three dairy cows; Iles bought them, and two more from a neighbor. He initially sold churned buttermilk since he had no electricity for cold storage. Later, he began delivering milk to Roanoke Rapids. David Jr. came along in 1941 and began working on the farm about the time he could stand up.
“My dad sold eggs, vegetables, strawberries, kept hogs, and did whatever else he could to make a living,” Iles says. “The dairy was an incredible addition to the farm because it gave him year-round income, and he actually expanded during the Depression.”
The operation would be a lifeline to many in the community. In an era of little cash, workers were able to take home supplies and food as part of their pay. In 1936, electricity reached the farm and the Ileses began selling milk. They built a barn to milk the cows that still stands today, albeit with alterations over the years.
Guernsey cows made up the herd for the first half of the century, back when selling raw milk was permitted. The dairy was highly regarded for producing milk rich in butterfat and yellow in color. In the 1960s, the herd began being converted to Holsteins, a breed known for white milk. By the mid-1980s, the dairy business was thriving in the state, and Iles herd averaged well over 200 head of cattle at most times. In the 1990s, however, the business took a turn.
“We found out a conventional dairy farm was not the way to go,” Iles says. “We made a commitment to rotational grazing in 1993 and started cross-breeding with Jerseys to create a new breed that could utilize forage instead of high levels of grain. We got less milk production, but better cow health and cost savings. Maximum production, regardless of cost, simply isn’t working.”
Rotational grazing was nothing new for the Iles family, which has farmed in Halifax County since 1763 and can trace their farming history back to 1650. They were into soil conservation before it was even a recognized practice.
“My grandfather used crop rotation and cover crops in the 1910s and 1920s, and my dad used rotational grazing, so we had a conservation ethic,” Iles says.
Iles continued that tradition after completing his education at North Carolina State University in 1965. “When I came home, I dedicated the farm to no-till, and it’s been that way since then,” Iles says. “We have a sacred obligation as stewards of the soil to pass it on to generations unborn, undamaged, and with the productivity increased. Present-day agriculture is based on profit, but we’ve lost over half of our topsoil in less than 100 years in this country.”
The dairy production trend is of great concern to Iles. He notes figures that say less than 40% of the milk in the country is produced in the Southeast and that for the first time, North Carolina is a “deficient” state — it consumes more milk than it produces. When he returned from college, there were more than 10,000 dairy farms in the state; at the start of 2009, there were 285. Much of the production has moved out West.
“Dairy farms in the desert are not sustainable, and when gas goes back up, the price of milk will be astronomical,” he says. “A price will be paid for putting Eastern dairies out of business.
“My answer was to get out,” Iles says. “There is going to be a complete collapse [of the industry]. We were exporting milk, but when the recession hit, we lost that market and what we had here.”
Iles is not getting out of cattle, just changing directions with his business. After taking some time off, he plans to convert his 200 acres to beef cattle. He has a fungus-free fescue and persistent Kentucky bluegrass for his animals.
“We have an excellent system of rotational grazing, where we can use it 365 days a year,” Iles says. “Our pastures have matured. This farm is set up for beef, and to grow grass. We’re still studying it, but it looks like Angus seems to be in demand.”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.