Dairy farmers battle for survival
Sterk grabs the bull by the horns
Dairy farmer Kent Sterk did not invent the phrase “bad things come in threes,” but he lived it recently at his rural Hillsboro farm.
First, a three-year-old dairy bull nearly killed him three weeks ago when he was trying to load it in a trailer bound for a Salina sale. Then two weeks ago, he wrecked the family SUV while checking fences, and finally, last week, he injected himself with pink eye medication while treating heifers.
“I knew that bull was getting mean and it was time to sell him,” Sterk said. “He never really came after me, but he would shake his head and paw the ground.”
This time, however, Sterk said the bull came after him, knocked him down as he tried to hang on to his horn nubs, and proceeded to grind him into the dirt.
Several dairy workers were within shouting distance, but it was Drake Sterk, Kent’s oldest son just home from an out-of-state college, who got to him first and began throwing sticks and rocks at the bull to distract him from his mission.
“I knew I had to get out from under him and Drake got him to lift his head,” Sterk said. “The bull stepped on me and bruised me up pretty good. I was glad Drake was around.”
The bull in question went on to greener pastures, the wrecked SUV was replaceable, and other than a very sore leg from the accidental injection, Sterk went back to milking his 235 cows as usual. His experiences, however, illustrate the dangers of dairy farming and point to the ever-present difficulties that have reduced dairy operations in Marion County from more than 150 to eight in the past four decades.
Galen Penner, also a rural Hillsboro farmer, sold all of his milk cows in May, ending a multi-generational family profession of dairy farming.
“I was just tired,” Penner said. “It got to the point where it was just too much. Something had to go, or I was going to go.”
Penner, also a Marion County Rural Water District employee and crops farmer, came back to Marion County to take over the dairy from his own father 39 years ago.
“I love the cows, really enjoy raising the calves to maturity,” Penner said. “I tried to stick it out as long as I could, but when I really started crunching the numbers it didn’t make sense to go on any more.”
Penner said the dairy cattle business was different now that it had been 39 years ago when he came back home to fulfill a family dream.
“The drought has driven feed prices up higher and higher which makes any margin for profit really slim, not just for dairying, but for any farm operation,” he said. “In farming, it has become all about size and numbers.”
County extension agent Rickey Roberts echoed Penner in assessing the state of Marion County dairy operations.
“The economy has been really tough on them,” Roberts said. “But when corn prices hit $6 it really got stupid. The question becomes: Why should I chop this corn and feed it to my cows when I can sell it as grain and make more money without the intensive labor to milk?”
Roberts said large corporate dairy operations in western Kansas could put out the capital to invest in the latest equipment to economize labor and increase production. But it has become difficult for small family farms to compete anymore.
“I hate to say that the days of the small dairy are gone forever, but the industry has changed dramatically,” Roberts said. “The little guy just cannot compete.”
Jason Wiebe saw the need to diversify his production years ago and continues to operate a successful milk and cheese production farm north of Durham.
“Our biggest problem is the price of feed,” Wiebe said. “The drought we’ve experienced the past few years has made it very difficult to buy feed, but that is what I have to do as we don’t have enough land to raise all we need. We are successful only because we are making and selling cheese.”
Wiebe said he milks 120 crossbred cows and processes about one-third of their production on the farm.
“We have a variety of cheeses that we sell here at the farm and at grocery stores,” Wiebe said. “We ship our products to 16 different states and have about 28 stores in that Kansas City area alone that carry our cheese.”
A milk truck picks up the rest of the Wiebe farm milk, along with Sterk and the other five dairies still operating in Marion County. Penner was the last dairy along a stretch of K-15 highway going north to Nebraska that used to have dairies every few miles.
Cow milk produced by the eight dairies in Marion County ends up in a variety of products nationwide.
“Our milk goes to DFA (Dairy Family Associates),” Sterk said. “It’s a big national company with processing plants in Wichita and Kansas City.”
Milk sent to Wichita ends up in Highland products like yogurt, ice cream and cottage cheese, while the Kansas City division provides milk in cartons for schoolchildren.
Sterk said using crossbred cows has been a boon to his operation because of the added vigor that results in stronger, healthier, longer-producing cows.
“There are some dairies that look down on the crossbreds,” he said. “But they give milk with more solids (butterfat and protein) and have fewer health problems.”
Wiebe also said he utilized crossbreeding in his operation.
“I have very few that are pure Holstein anymore,” Wiebe said. “I keep a lot of records on each cow, and there is no doubt the crossbreds are hardier animals and make more money.”
For Penner, and other dairy operators who sold out in the past few years, getting used to life without cows has been difficult.
“I still get up early,” he said. “I rarely sleep past 3 or 4 a.m., it’s just how I am programmed. It is going to be a long adjustment.”
Penner said, however, that he did not regret his decision to quit dairying.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “I will miss the cows, but it’s a grueling life and I don’t regret quitting. I have enough to do with just trying to make up for 35 years having time to do only what had to be done. It’s time for me to clean up this place.”