Stacey McCallister can drive his southwest Missouri road and see dairy farms disappearing. According to this Mountain Grove dairy producer, the industry in this area of the state is "on the verge of collapse."
"Our cattle are not worth anything, our input cost is so outrageous compared to the price the USDA is setting for milk prices," he says. "And the infrastructure is crumbling."
Just last week, he lost two over-the-road transport companies hauling milk from the area. McCallister anticipates higher milk hauling prices. "If we have a hauler who says they isn't enough milk to haul out of the area and they are not making enough money and they say they need 50 cents more per hundredweight, we have nowhere else to go. We just have to pay the cost."
McCallister has been milking cattle in the area for more almost a quarter of a century. And he has never seen it as bad as this past year. "We have been losing farms for the past five years," he says, "but nothing like the amount we lost last year."
According to Gene Wiseman, in April Missouri had 922 permitted Grade A dairy farms. At the same time last year, that number was 1,057, that is a loss of 135 dairy farms in one year. Some exited because of drought conditions and economics.
"Some might have exited because of lack of labor, age, or health," explains Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association. "But things became extenuated by the drought as people ran out of feed and couldn't afford to buy feed." In some areas, feed costs could be as much as triple the previous year's price. Those factors proved too extensive for some farmers.
McCallister says dairy producers are hard-working individuals who do not give up easily. He remains in the industry because he believes "it is the right thing to do." "We need small, grass roots farmers," he says. "It is a matter of national security. We don't want a national disaster to happen and the state of Missouri not be able to provide for itself. We need to have farmers that can bring us the milk we need right here locally."
Unfortunately, Missouri is a net importer of milk. The state has dropped from 300,000 dairy cows 20 years ago, to 95,000 today. Missouri now ranks 25th in milk production. The good news is that despite losing farms, cow numbers remained level over the last year. Drennan says it is due to improved efficiencies in the industry. Still it is not enough to produce the supply needed for consumers.
The farm bill will help provide some security for dairy producers, according to Drennan. In addition, the sight of farmers planting in fields alleviated some concern over feed supply "I have always said if you are not an eternal optimist and part gambler, agriculture is not your profession to be in."
McCallister says it will take farmers thinking outside of the box to stay dairying in the state. He does not want to see any more dairy farms shut their parlor doors. "Our state needs dairy farmers," he says. "Our hometowns need dairy farmers."