April 24, 2023 at 1:04 p.m.
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
Blue skies on the horizon
“It was an opportunity to do what my friends were doing, although they may have been raising pigs or beef cattle and I was milking cows,” Fordyce said. “Now this group is transitioning to slowing down. I’m looking to have more time to golf, go to meetings and spend time with family.”
Fordyce and his brother, Matt, own the last dairy farm in Buena Vista County in northwest Iowa where they milk 160 cows in a double-7 herringbone parlor. Most of their milk is hauled 45 miles to the Dairy Farmers of America plant in Le Mars and the rest goes 43 miles to Associated Milk Producers Inc. in Sanborn.
The brothers’ site, near Aurelia, is also a crop farm. They grow 100 acres of alfalfa, 35 of oats seeded with alfalfa, 200 of corn and 60 of soybeans, which they roast themselves.
“We’re kind of self-sufficient,” Fordyce said. “We use up everything that we grow.”
Their herd consists of three-way crossbred cow – Holstein, Montbéliarde and Swedish Red. The Fordyces transitioned to crossbreds after discussions with Les Hanson from the University of Minnesota about his research with crossbred performance. The decision has worked well for the Fordyces, especially because of where they farm.
“We keep all females,” Fordyce said. “For a good percentage of the bulls, being they are cross-calves, we have cow-calf operators near us who want to buy them because they can put them on a beef cow, and they work really well.”
The brothers were willing to try new ideas throughout the years as the dairy industry in their area continued to change.
“There are 576 square miles in Buena Vista County, and 100 years ago, I think every section of land had at least one dairy in it, so we may have had 800 to 1,000 dairies,” Fordyce said. “It was not out of the ordinary even in my lifetime to have another dairy one or two sections away.”
Eventually, those farms disappeared.
Fordyce and his brother are the second generation to dairy farm at the site his parents bought over 60 years ago. They will be the last as well. Their children, as well as their nieces and nephews, have chosen other professions.
Wanting to slow down but not yet ready to give up the dairy, the brothers looked for a solution. That is where Evan and Reena Hansen came in.
The Hansens had just begun launching a dairy operation when the coronavirus pandemic arrived. They had trouble getting anyone to come to the farm much less pick up their milk.
“When they started their operation, they thought somebody would be interested, but suddenly the processors, the co-ops, didn’t want milk either,” Fordyce said. “Nobody wanted to take on more milk at the time, and it lasted for months. You just basically had to dump milk.”
The Hansens began looking for solutions.
The answer came for both the Fordyces and Hansens in a three-year, lease-to-own agreement for the Hansens to buy the Fordyces’ herd.
“We want to transition out of some of the normal day-to-day harvesting of milk and do more with managing while seeing this younger couple get a good start,” Fordyce said. “This is kind of a second chance for them.”
The three-year agreement suits both sides, but it does have unknowns, especially for the Hansens. Because they cannot roll into the milk contract the Fordyces have with AMPI, some things remain uncertain.
Evan said he realizes the ups and downs of the industry.
“My goal is to be able to continue dairy farming,” Evan said. “I know it sounds rough right now, but the dairy industry seems to be changing rapidly. Just in the few years that I have been involved, it went from the struggles with COVID-19, then to really no problem finding a market for milk to a real struggle to secure a milk contract.”
Reena said she sees advantages with their lease-to-own agreement.
“The benefit of being with Matt and Dave is being able to capture 90 years of dairy knowledge and experience,” Reena said. “Also, (we gain) the connections they have made and a way to get a herd of sound, crossbred cattle with good structure.”
Fordyce said the Hansens now take care of the majority of dairying on the farm while the brothers assist with feeding and take care of crop production. They all approach the future one day at a time because variables must be worked out as the answers become clearer.
“I’m not sure what will happen at the end of three years,” Fordyce said. “Evan and Reena don’t really have a milk contract right now, so if they decided to leave, they don’t really have any place where they can sell their milk to.”
However, there are signs the future is looking up for all parties involved.
The Interstate 29 corridor in South Dakota that state officials have worked with to entice and support dairy farming is having a ripple effect across the borders into Iowa and Minnesota. U.S. Department of Agriculture data for 2022 shows milk production increased on average nearly 4% in those three states with a 15.5% increase in South Dakota alone.
“In the four counties of extreme northwest Iowa, we’ve seen an increase in dairy cow numbers,” Fordyce said. “Some are transplants from California who decided to come where it’s progressive, where the dairy industry is promoting itself. The numbers indicate … a rebirth of dairy in that direction.”
Most of the increase has come in numbers of dairy cows rather than new farms.
“In my lifetime, my thoughts about large dairies have changed,” Fordyce said. “Now I accept them and see them as my friend or companion in this dairy industry, and we’re working for the same thing. … They are somebody I’m in the same struggle with.”
The I-29 corridor effort is also working to make sure dairy infrastructure exists, including a market for the milk produced and the required feed for herds.
“Even though there’s rising land prices, we’re seeing labor available, and there’s good production of crops,” Fordyce said. “Within 60 miles of our farm, there are at least 10 ethanol plants, and there are byproducts from that. Twelve miles away, we’re going to have a new soybean crush plant, and there will be byproducts from that. There is an abundance of feedstuffs in northwest Iowa.”
The area has community support for dairy farms as well.
“Animal agriculture has been in the crosshairs, and we will continue to be, but we’ve been fortunate here that we can do what we want because there isn’t a lot of pushback,” Fordyce said. “The businesses in town know how that dollar rotates within the community. We are pro-dairy in this part of the state, and the communities have supported what we do.”
Fordyce said, looking back, he feels fortunate.
“We survived and prospered,” he said. “We got bigger, and we were able to pay for our expansion without borrowing a lot of money. We had a number of people who were experts in the field who helped us on our way. … They were all good people who helped us along the way, and we couldn’t have done it without them.”’
Fordyce said he also feels hopeful for the Hansens.
“There definitely is a dairy industry in northwest Iowa that is prospering and heading to the future in good shape,” he said. “All things are looking up for that.”