It’s been a rough five years for the dairy industry and it’s forced many Michigan farms to close their doors. Lowell farmer, Renee McCauley says the only way to survive is to change with the times.
“Dairy farmers are resilient. We work in an economy that is always changing and we are always facing challenges,” McCauley said while standing at her farm Tumbleweed Dairy on Thursday.
The challenges the dairy industry is facing at a national level are possibly even more prevalent in Michigan.
“We didn’t start with as many farms as Wisconsin for example, but percentage wise we’ve probably lost as many farms as they have,” said Ken Nobis, the senior policy adviser at Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA).
Nobis said the downturn came after 2014, when there were exceptionally high prices for milk.
“There’s multiple issues that have caused it. Primarily, we’ve ended up with more milk than the consumers will consume,” he said.
Nobis said typically dairy farming runs in a three year cycle: one good year, one mediocre year, one bad year.
“So, when you have four or five years in a row that are bad it takes a long time to recover from that and that’s the problem we have today,” he said. “It’s a pretty deep hole for producers to climb out of.”
Alternative milk products like almond and oat milk have also played some part in the decline, Nobis said.
“There’s only so much space in a consumers stomach,” he said.
The dairy industry has been battling milk substitutes for some time now.
“The problem we have is when they call it ‘milk’ because the Food and Drug Administration has a definition for milk, and it has to be produced from the mammary gland of an animal and an almond is not a mammary gland of an animal,” Nobis said.
Fluid consumption of milk has been declining for years, but Nobis said the consumption of dairy products like yogurt and cheese is actually increasing.
“When you see the variety of choices that are out there, it’s exciting,” McCauley said, who works with the MMPA to sell her product. “It makes me glad to be a dairy farmer.”
McCauley is in the process of taking over the farm she grew up on. Their farm has two employees in addition to McCauley, her mother and her husband to milk their 125 cows twice each day. She recently had to downsize the farm by 50 milking cows.
While the industry continues to change beyond the farm, McCauley said the treatment of their animals has not changed.
“Even if we are facing challenges, we are dairy farmers because of our passion and drive we have for caring for cows and that’s our focus and that hasn’t changed,” she said.
Michigan is largely made up of small farms like Tumbleweed Dairy, and Nobis says when these farms close the impact is far reaching.
“A dairy farm buys a lot of inputs. So when it closes, it has an effect on the feed dealers, the veterinarians, the equipment companies located in those communities,” he said. “There is a definite economic impact on rural America when dairy farms close.”