Taking the lower-tech
Relentless economic pressures on US dairy farmers are
forcing them to choose between two alternatives – further
expansion and intensification or lower-cost, lower
labour systems. Geoff Tansey looked at some
examples of the latter
WHEN Paul Bickford began putting up fencing, his neighbours were perplexed. "Boy, hes really gone off the deep end now, hes planting fence posts," they said.
For in rural Wisconsin, in the heart of the American Midwest dairy country, for 50 years the aim has been to confine cows in a dairy, bring the feed to them and take the muck away, says rancher Dick Cates, coordinator of the School for Beginning Dairy Farmers at the University of Wisconsin.
But Paul Bickford is one of a growing band of farmers abandoning confinement dairies, with their high labour and capital requirements and adopting a management-intensive rotational grazing system.
For the Bickfords its part of a survival strategy that he and his wife Cyd hope will enable them to realise the assets from their farm and raise enough to retire on. With low milk prices and capital assets built up in the farm over generations "no one can buy me out any other way at a price Id want," says Paul.
Somewhat jointly operated
The Bickfords have split their old 300-cow confinement dairy business on the 480ha (1200-acre) farm into three distinct but "somewhat jointly operated" farms. The most profitable unit is managed by Cyd Bickford and a share milker, Scott Annen. They manage 60 Jersey cows on a seasonal grass-fed system with the dry cows left out during the sub-zero winters.
The share milker scheme is modelled on schemes developed in New Zealand and is a way to enable young people to get into farming. This is a big problem in Wisconsin where around 3000 people leave dairying each year but only 1500 start up, according to Doug Jackson-Smith, associate director of the programme on Agricultural Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Family farm numbers have dropped in the state from about 100,000 30 years ago to around 65,000 today. In the 1980s, when agricultural commodities prices crashed, interest rates soared and many farmers were overextended with loans, there was a farm crisis in the US which saw 1000s go bankrupt and many farmer suicides. "But in Wisconsin the peak came much later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s and it hasnt gone away," says Dr Jackson-Smith.
The pressures are forcing farmers into high-tech large-scale operations, or alternative management systems with low costs of production, which is where the move to rotational grazing comes in, he says.
For Scott Annen, it has been a way into farming. From nothing he now owns half the Jersey herd – "but he doesnt know which half" says Paul Bickford – and hopes to be renting a farm within two years and owning before 10 years is up. He also expects to have a share milker join him when hes older and use it as a route out to retire.
The changes are less complex for father and son Dwight and Dan Truttmann. They have increased their herd size and reduced costs by switching from a confinement dairy with 60 cows to one with 120 cows out grazing on their 140ha (350-acre) farm, producing milk seasonally. They operate the business as a partnership, started the conversion in 1992 and built a swing-12 New Zealand-style milking parlour three years ago.
They switched to grazing for profitability, lifestyle and environmental reasons, says Dan. "We dont have to spend all of the day slaving away but can get away from the farm once in a while," he says. Although milk yields have fallen by about 10% since they started – from about 10,400kg a cow to 9000kg a cow now – the feed and other costs have dropped by more than 10% and animal health costs have been halved.
Cyd Bickford also found the vets bills dropped – in her case from about £52 a cow to £3.20 a cow. The Bickmans and Truttmanns are part of a growing band of small dairy farmers taking a lower-tech route in US dairying, with 10-15% now grass feeding in Wisconsin.
For the dairy farmers turning to grazing, theres more to it than business. They have found a new friendliness and openness amongst other farmers doing the same, which is also benefiting new entrants like Brad Streigel.
He is now spending a couple of months at the Bickfords as part of his training at the Beginning School for Dairy Farmers. Hes been impressed by the networking among the grazers and their willingness to share what they have learned.
Some of these farmers have gone down an organic route, like dairy farmer Jim Goodman who has a 160ha (400-acre) farm, but others like the Truttmanns have not. Yet they all see themselves as practising more sustainable farming.
The experience of farmers such as these has led Steve Stevenson, associate director of the University of Wisconsins Centre for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which was set up partly as a result of small farmer pressure, to rethink what a sustainable farming system means.
He argues that there are five elements to sustainable systems: "Theyre economically viable, environmentally sustainable, emotionally rewarding, transferable from one generation to the next and community supporting."
They may also need people like Paul Bickford, who says "were not a profit-at-all-costs operation." He has rejected using cheap immigrant labour and gives new entrants like Scott a chance to get into farming.
For support in helping others into this, a surprising range of people are helping the School for Beginning Dairy Farmers – processing cooperatives, rural electricity cooperatives, milking equipment suppliers, financial services and seed companies, says Dick Cates. For all these have a stake in a vibrant rural community, which seems an essential part of sustainability in Wisconsin.
Left:Cyd Bickford with new entrant Brad Streigal and share milker Scott Annen. She and husband Paul have changed the structure of the farm to match current economic conditions. Above: Some of the older buildings on Dwight and Dan Truttmanns 350-acre 120-cow farm.