On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon with the threat of rain hovering in the distance, Victor Womack was doing what he has done for the last six decades: puttering around the outbuildings that make up his dairy farm.
Inside the small concrete barn, the husband-wife team of Terry and Holly Anderson, Womack’s two ranch hands, lead a dozen cows into a series of stalls before attaching suction cups to their udders — “bags” in dairy parlance.
The milk pumped into a refrigerated tank is white, but it means green to Womack. Increasingly however, the green is less and less. It costs Womack more to produce a gallon of milk than he can get by selling it, and he worries that he might have to do what hundreds of Louisiana dairy farmers have done before him: shut down.
Womack’s plight is unusual in that his farm is still milking. Hundreds of others in Louisiana, mostly in St. Helena, Tangiphoa and Washington parishes, have already closed. To put it in perspective, in 2004, there were over 300 dairy farms in Louisiana, according to the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, a multi-state promotional group. And when Victor Womack married his wife Joy in the 1980s, there were more than 1,000. Now, there are just 119. And that number is still dropping
It’s a national trend. There were 45,344 dairy farms nationwide in 2014, according to Hoard’s Dairymen, and industry newsletter. That’s about one-third of what there were in 1992. The decline is especially pronounced in the southeast, where a combination of bad economics, national politics and climate change have made it harder and harder for the farms to survive.
Victor Womack’s assessment is blunt.
“There’s no future in the dairy business,” he said.
Supply and demand
The most recent farm closure came from Kleinpeter, the Baton Rouge-based dairy processor that sells products throughout south Louisiana, including in the New Orleans area.
Until earlier this year, Kleinpeter operated a 1,500-acre, 300-head dairy farm near Montpelier in St. Tammany Parish. The farm wasn’t earning or losing money, according to Kenny Kleinpeter, but it was doing something else: competing with the other local — and mostly smaller — dairy farmers from whom Kleinpeter wants to buy fresh milk.
Kleinpeter Farms Dairy is getting out of the ice cream business.
“The biggest complaint about the farm was from the dairy farmers,” said Kenny Kleinpeter. “We needed their milk more without our farm.”
Buying more local farmers’ milk will hopefully help prevent those farms from having to shut down, he said. He added that Kleinpeter pays a premium for high quality fresh milk with a low bacteria count.
But that premium doesn’t go very far. It only adds a little to the price of milk, which is set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a regional basis.
Notification of the price set comes to farmers in something called Federal Order No. 7. The most recent order sets the price of milk at just under $14 per hundredweight, or about 11 gallons.
“It costs us between $18 and $20 to produce a hundredweight of milk,” Joy Womack said.
Womack recently sold 33,000 pounds of milk to Kleinpeter, and was paid less than $5,000, including the premium. That amounted to about two weeks worth of milking for the farm, she said. But she also had a bill for the 15 tons of feed, about two weeks worth. That came to about $3,800, she said. Factoring in the other costs of running the farm, there is no money for extras.
“We don’t go out for pizza unless I have a coupon or it’s a special day,” Joy Womack said.
The Womacks also keep a beef herd that helps offset the expenses, but it’s not enough.
Jeff Kleinpeter is stepping down as president and chief executive officer of the family-owne…
The harsh realities of the business environment have not only pushed farmers out of dairy, but also made sure that no others are coming in.
“You know what the average age of the dairy farmer in Louisiana is? 70. Seven-oh,” Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said. The only farmers left are the ones who began “40 years ago or inherited their farms,” he said.
Changing the way milk is priced is an uphill battle, Strain said. It would require, literally, an act of Congress.
According to Strain, a good option would be for Congress to authorize a regional dairy compact — an agreement among states that would allow them to set their own price for milk. A similar compact in the northeast also had a stated goal of preserving the area’s dairy industry.
But Congress allowed the Northeast Dairy Compact to expire without reauthorization. And it’s unlikely that lawmakers could be persuaded to set up another one in the southeast.
Strain pointed to the upper midwest states, where milk is cheaper to produce, as the main opponents of such agreements. Those states have little incentive to support measure that would enable the dairy farms in the south to compete with their own farmers, Strain said.
Currently, Louisiana imports about 70 percent of the milk consumed, most of that from the upper midwest, he added.
“I have tried for 15 years to get a resolution” through Congress, Strain said. “We just do not have the votes.”
The production of milk is a relatively straightforward matter: feed cow, milk cow. But though the steps are simple, the process is not.
Cows are sensitive to external factors, including temperature, noise and the unfamiliar.
For instance, when a reporter entered the Womack’s barn, Joy cautioned him to be quiet, so as not to startle the cows and cause them to give less milk.
And dairy cows — mostly Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys — don’t like hot weather, something we are blessed with in abundance in the south.
Kenny Kleinpeter said it’s getting worse. He pointed to another possible factor: climate change.
Dairy cows already don’t like to give much milk in the heat. And anecdotal evidence suggests cows are giving less and less.
“It’s just getting harder and harder to milk cows down here in the southeast,” Kleinpeter said.
Kleinpeter Farms Dairy said it has spent “in the neighborhood of $3 million” over the past f…
Victor Womack has noticed a change in how his cows gave, even in the summer.
“I think so,” he said when asked if climate change was impacting his cows. “It’s got to be something.”
Higher temperatures and violent storms add stress to the cows, and result in less and more expensive milk to produce, he said.
The slide in the number of dairy farms in Louisiana doesn’t look like it’s going to turn around anytime soon.
“We are taking about an industry that may not be here in five or 10 years,” Kleinpeter said.
Strain said he hopes that a change in the White House may lead to some progress.
“The only thing that could change is the federal government taking into account the price of production,” he said. But he didn’t sound optimistic.
He pointed to Alabama, which has just 40 dairies remaining, as a harbinger of where Louisiana could be headed.
For Victor Womack, the dairy farm is a legacy of his father and grandfather. The Womacks have two sons, who sometimes help out on the dairy farm, but when asked if they plan to pass the farm along to their sons when they retire, the answer is short.
“Not no, but hell no,” Joy Womack said