The rural Henning, Minnesota dairy farmer is preparing for a day this weekend he’s both dreaded, yet knew was coming.
“The hardest part of this for me, the girls having to say goodbye to something that has been a part of their life and that is all they have known since they were babies, and it is a business but it is a way of life more than anything,” he said.
In a couple of days, Steve and his family will say goodbye to a way of life, his milk cows. And all that goes with life on a dairy farm. The long days and nights, no vacations. But a lifestyle like no other.
“Halloween they had to come down to the barn and show dad their costumes before trick or treating, Christmas morning, they patiently waited for me to finish milking, so they could see what Santa brought. Everything in their lives has revolved around these cows because they have to be milked twice a day, and taken care of,” Cordes said.
Milk prices for dairy farmers have hit rock bottom and stayed there too long. Steve had to do something.
“I just got my milk check for July’s milk and my base was $14-dollars a hundredweight and that is the same price I got 25 years ago, and our expenses have doubled and sometimes tripled,” Cordes said.
While the math and farm accounting should make this an easy decision, it’s not. After all, Steve ancestors from Germany arrived in this part of Otter Tail county before the 1900s, that is when this tradition started.
“My great great grandfather homesteaded on the south shores of west leaf lake of leaf lake township (Henning) since then there has been a Cordes farming for 133 years, I am the last one, but that is a long run,” Cordes said.
But Steve is not alone, in the last 18 years, 42,000 dairy farmers nationwide have called it quits. But just 2 hours south of Otter Tail County there are mega dairy farms going up. Where in each barn there are 10,000 cows being milked.
“I can’t compete with such a specialized operation, and it runs like clockwork,” Cordes said.
Only 153 farmers milk in Otter Tail County right now. There used to be hundreds.
“25-years ago there were 33 dairy farms and today in those two townships there are four left,” Cordes said.
Now Steve joins those who have worked hard, despite the challenges out of their control. His milkhouse lights are about to go off.
“I kind of lost my passion for dairy, I hate to say that, but after 30 years, you lose that spark. I need a new challenge, I am scared and excited all at once,” Cordes said.
The biggest disappointment for Steve, sharing the news with his three kids. They grew up in the barn, winning 4H ribbons, most recently weeks ago. Two of the girls are off to college now, but before they left one came to milk one last time.
“Those last cows got milked and it was tough on us both, tough thing to have to see them say goodbye too. You don’t realize how important of a part of their life it was until them” Cordes said.
The bright spot. Steve will stay on the farm, he’s already started to branch out raising sheep. For him, a new beginning.
That farm tradition his family started more than a century ago, it will continue.
“You are going to wake up at 5 a.m., no matter what, and feel lost not going to the barn,” Cordes said.