Dairy farmers face increasing expenses

Things never seem to get any easier for dairy farmers.

The hours are long; the work is hard. In short, running a dairy operation is not for the faint of heart. Central Pennsylvania farmers say the ever-increasing expenses of feeding cattle are making it even more difficult.

Brynn Bower got into the dairy business as a youngster fresh out of high school in 2004. He plans to remain a dairy farmer, despite the drawbacks.

“Soybean is my main expense,” he said.

Soybeans are part of the feed for cattle which helps supply the proteins cows need for enhanced milk production. By his estimate, he spends close to $2,000 a month on soybeans for 36 cows at his farm east of Hughesville. He grows his own corn which is part of the feed for cows. Overall, feed prices have increased dramatically in recent years, according to Penn State University Extension Educator Dave Hartman,

“The dairy farmers have been caught in the pinch because their feed costs have gone up,” he said.

Tioga County farmer Terry Wilson said the increased demand of corn to produce ethanol is part of the reason for the rise in price for feed. Last year’s drought, which hit much of the nation’s farm belt, also is to blame. Erick Coolidge, a fourth generation Wellsboro area dairy farmer, said that high feed costs are simply part of the challenge of running an agricultural operation.

“As challenging as it is, when you incorporate an approved practice, you enhance the operation,” he said. “It really comes down to whether you are in for the long haul.”

Providing the best feed possible, he said, goes into the formula of running a good dairy operation. Coolidge said he raises his own hay and mixes it with corn silage and grain.

“We will buy soy and distillers that will go into feed,” he said. “We buy our own soy.”

Coolidge said a veterinarian provides a feed analysis and examines the cows. After all, being in the dairy business, he said, is a “science.”

George Burgett, who runs a dairy farm between Hughesville and Lairdsville, estimated he buys about 200 bushels of feed corn a week at $7 a bushel. He also buys about 600 pounds a week of soybean meal to feed his 45 milking cows. Just a few years ago, the cost was less than half that amount. Needless to say, the costs add up.

“I’ve never seen it as tough as it is the last few years,” he said.

Wilson and other farmers say they save some money by planting their own corn. He buys corn feed for added protein.

“In this business, you make a living, but you aren’t going to get rich at it,” he said.

Coolidge, a Tioga County Commissioner, said one reason he stays in the dairy business is to keep with a family tradition.

“Our son feels like he wants to continue with it,” he said.

Beyond that, he feels dairy operations are an important part of the overall economy. Milk production in the state reportedly is a $2.34 billion business, with Pennsylvania dairy farmers’ production at 1.2 billion gallons annually. Still, not many young people are taking up dairy farming these days.

Bower is the exception to the rule. He said it’s what he’s always wanted to do. Never mind the hardships.

“The neighbors help out some, but you can hardly afford to pay anyone with just 36 cows,” he said. “My brother helps sometimes.”

Overall, his is pretty much a one-man operation. Hal Drick, Spring-Cre Farm, Washington Township, agreed that rising costs are making things stuff.

“The feed expenses are largest single expense on the dairy farm,” he said. “I buy my grain corn and protein. I don’t begrudge the grain guys. They got to make a living too.”

He grows his own corn on more than 100 acres and chops it up for corn silage. To save costs, he’s cut back a little on his purchase of grain and protein.