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Midwest dairy farmers struggle, but West worse

By Staff | Feb 20, 2009

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – Upper Midwest dairy farmers struggling through poor economic times say they are not as bad off as their counterparts in Western states.

In California, hundreds of thousands of dairy cows are being sent to slaughter because farmers cannot afford to feed them.

”They’re going to be the first ones hurt because they buy most of their feed,” said Richardton farmer Jerry Messer, chairman of the Midwest Dairy Association. ”Most of the dairy farmers in the Upper Midwest raise their own feed.”

The price dairy farmers are getting for their milk is about half what it was last summer. Industry officials point to a variety of reasons, from the economic downturn to a big drop in exports. And while milk prices were dropping, farmers saw a dramatic rise in feed grain costs last year.

The industry in the Upper Midwest was somewhat cushioned because it has smaller dairies that typically grow most of their own feed.

However, most dairies in the region still buy some supplemental feed, and not all dairies produce their own hay and grain. Stanton dairyman Ole Johnson is one who doesn’t.

”We’re being more aggressive on our culling, getting rid of more cows that are lower in production,” he said.

Messer said even those farmers who buy their hay are better off than dairymen in California.

”We’re closer to the source of good alfalfa,” he said. Messer said that while alfalfa costs up to $300 a ton in California, ”it’s $110 to $200 in North Dakota.”

North Dakota has experienced one of its harshest winters in recent memory, and Johnson said the available supply of quality hay is dwindling.

”No one told the cows to stop eating,” he joked.

Johnson said Upper Midwest farmers also have to deal with milk shopping costs that are double what they are in California, because the milk has to be hauled farther.

Messer and Johnson said that while the Upper Midwest dairy situation might not be as desperate as in California, farmers still are suffering.

”We tend to hang on a little more up here; we tend to be more diversified,” Messer said. ”But if the economy stays like it is and the consumer doesn’t return to our product … it’s going to be tough for everybody.”

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