All of us dairy farmers are living the dream. We have been carrying on traditions that have been passed down by generations. Each of us start every day off with heading out of the house to work with our cows, heifers and calves. We make sure our cattle are eating a healthy ration, that they are living in comfortable housing and that all of their needs are met. We focus on details. We can look at an animal and see it isn’t well. These skills are taught by others who have lived longer and were willing to share their knowledge.
From the eye of someone who lives in the city or an urban area, our farms are big. We live surrounded by dark green alfalfa, corn standing tall and golden wheat waving as it begins to dry for harvest. Our cows in a barn or in the pasture are the image of prosperity.
As these visitors travel around our rural roads and drive by farms that stand empty, they don’t understand why or how these farmers have lost their livelihood. When there are natural disasters such as a tornado, flooding, drought and fire, the city folk can see it; the loss of the dream.
But looking from the outside in, it all looks fine. These people, escaping from their city lives, have no idea about challenges that every dairy farmer faces. The fluctuation in the prices that dictate whether this will be a good or bad year isn’t in their mind when they see a big tank of milk, tractors and the bunkers full with feed.
I have been telling the farmers’ story for more than 25 years. I have been trying to explain why milk prices go up and down. I speak of how dairy farmers add more cows to their herd when the price of milk is low, so they can get enough in their milk check to cover the costs that it takes to feed the cows and also the bills that range from electricity to fuel, insurance, payroll, land and tractor payments. I also mention that when milk prices are high, dairy farmers also add cows to their herd to benefit from the high price to pay bills but also make improvements, buy equipment and hopefully improve their income and get ahead of the next swing in the milk price. Adding more cows makes the supply of milk go up, and in the end, the milk price goes down. Volatility and the fluctuation of the milk price controls our lives. It is the law of supply and demand. Too much milk equals low prices.
Often the pressure of debt and challenges to keep farming overcome the farm family. The decision to sell the cows is the most difficult any dairy farm family has to make. It is emotionally stressful because every cow is a living creature on a dairy farm, and we are all attached to them for our livelihoods. They have brought us comfort and joy for many years. Every dairy farmer loves cows.
In the United States, since 2018, there has been a loss of more than 7,500 dairy farms. The number of dairy herds has been in steady decline for decades. These are small, medium and even large dairy farms that have stopped milking. After the dairy farms close, there is a ripple effect on the communities. The school, churches, grocery and main street stores disappear. The local medical clinics move from the towns, requiring everyone to drive farther for healthcare.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we all learned how valuable our farmers are to every neighborhood. We continue to see grocery store prices increase due to lack of supply. We are still witnessing empty shelves and sold out dairy and meat cases that were barren of the products that are needed to feed our families.
As a farmer that grows food for consumers, we are less than 2% of the population. As dairy farmers, we have dropped down to below 1%. We need to come up with a solution to keep dairy farmers producing the milk and dairy products we all enjoy, and nutritionally need, to ensure our lives are healthy. This also includes the benefits from knowing that the milk we drink and enjoy is from dairy farms in our communities.
What can be done to keep more dairy farms from going out of business? Many milk cooperatives have started managing milk production by taking an average of one year’s production; that is called the base. We have the ability to grow, but we need to ask permission to add cows to our herd, so we don’t increase production that could create a surplus. This is a great plan, and Anna, as a beginning farmer, will have an opportunity to grow in the future if she needs to.
Unfortunately, not all milk cooperatives and processors are united on this plan. Without a plan, it leaves the dairy farmers that want to grow by adding more cows the ability to create the overproduction that forces the price down that negatively affects all dairy farmers. This is historically when dairy farm families lose their dream.
There is a buzz going on in dairy farm families that is uniting us together. Farm organizations are working together, talking about keeping the dairy farm families thriving in our communities. One plan that in the past was created by the Holstein Association, using a supply measure, was nearly passed in the 2014 farm bill. This new plan is basically a modified plan with research behind it. What the research showed was that if it had passed, there would have been an increase in the milk price and many family farms would have been saved. This new plan is called the Dairy Revitalization Plan.
Keep an eye out for more conversations with farm organizations as we are hopeful in keeping the dream alive for more family dairy farms.   
    Tina Hinchley, and her husband,  Duane, daughter Anna, milk 240 registered Holsteins with robots.  They also farm 2300 acres of crops near Cambridge, Wisconsin.  The Hinchley’s have been hosting farm tour for over 25 years.