By Evan Visconti
Dairy farms with more cows, advanced technology, and strict employee guidelines are finding a way to survive the pandemic.
“Today we have to milk more cows to earn the same livelihood our families did 40, 50 years ago,” said Dave Van Erden, owner of East View Farms LLC in Fabius, New York.
Milk costs on average about $17 per hundredweight to produce, according to Van Erden, yet the milk price last month was only $13 per hundredweight. “You’re talking about a 30 percent drop after the pandemic hit, and we were expecting to see $20 per hundredweight in 2020,” said Van Erden.
“We don’t get paid much more for our milk today as we did 50 years ago. But the rest of our input costs have gone up – fuel, feed, labor are all much more expensive,” said Van Erden.
So to cut costs, East View Farms uses a wide range of technology to milk 750 dairy cows everyday.
The farm uses robots to milk its organic dairy cows and precision agriculture to plant its crops. Mark Bailey, farm seed marketing manager at GrowMark, helps East View Farms grow their crops by providing technical services.
“Farms keep getting bigger and more efficient because of the technology they have access to. Smaller farms have to find a unique market to be able to compete,” said Bailey.
Most of the dairy farms who work with GrowMark have between 500 and 750 dairy cows. “Why spend time on smaller farms if they’ll be absorbed? We focus on helping big farms,” said Bailey.
Agricultural technology allows farmers to maximize their yields during harvest and lower their overall input costs. “Precision technology allows us to track our yield based on different parameters in the field using GPS,” said Van Erden. “The technology pinpoints different locations in the field and tells us what things worked well and what things worked poorly.”
Grid sampling is an agricultural technique where a large field is divided into a grid so that differences in soil nutrients can be detected and compensated for. “Soil within a 30 acre field is not uniform, so we use equipment that can compensate for a lack of nutrients in one section,” said Bailey.
The New York State Office of the Comptroller stated in a press release, “the long-term trend has been toward fewer, larger farms.”
Small farms do not have access to the expensive technology that large farms use in order to cut overall production costs. Robotic milking machines can detect sick cows and collect data that tells farmers how to adjust their feed to maximize milk production, according to Bailey.
Cows feed on mainly grain, corn, and haylage. In Central New York, dairy farmers usually buy the grain from a retailer and grow their own corn and haylage.
Liam Wilfong, a worker in charge of feed at Currie Valley Dairy in Preble, New York, pointed toward several factors that can affect milk production.
“When it gets hot, their milk is going to drop because cows like a cooler temperature,” said Wilfong. “The feed is also really important. We have to monitor moisture content and make sure the cows are getting the nutrients they need.”
Currie Dairy Farm has about 1,000 milking cows. The feed is dumped into trailers equipped with an electronic scale that allows the cows to be fed a precise amount three times a day, according to Wilfong.
Northeast dairy farmers have been in a “slump” since 2014, said Van Erden. “$20 per hundredweight would have been a huge help to pay off mortgages and debt.”
Aside from the technology, keeping people employed on the farm has been a challenge. Dairy workers are considered essential workers, so work never slowed down on the farm despite concerns about worker safety.
“We had to provide our workers with letters so that if they got pulled over, they could prove they were an essential worker,” said Van Erden. Workers also needed to be educated about the risks and rumors associated with COVID-19.
Cows cannot transfer COVID-19 to humans, although Van Erden said workers on his farm were concerned about “crossover” at the beginning of the pandemic. People can still infect each other on the farm, so Van Erden posted signs and educated his employees about staying healthy.
“Our workers are split between immigrant and American, so anything we released had to be written in two languages,” said Van Erden.
Van Erden said despite the challenges in the dairy market, he still feels blessed to come into work every day. “Everybody is happy to be able to contribute something to a hurting nation and a hurting world right now.”
East View Farms and Currie Valley Dairy belong to two separate dairy co-ops that both sell a lot of milk to Chobani yogurt. Neither farm decided to sell cows as a way of responding to the crashing milk market, because the demand for their product is still mostly there. Products that are sold mainly in grocery stores, like Chobani yogurt, have not been as impacted as products sold in schools and restaurants.
“We’re not dumping milk or selling cows. We’re still selling dairy to the Preble Milk Co-op, and I think that’s one of the benefits to having a smaller co-op with retail contracts,” said Matthew Currie, a worker on the Currie Valley Farm.
East View Farms belongs to the Cayuga Marketing co-op. “Our co-op is small and it has its own milk processing plant, so we were able to be a little bit more nimble compared to the larger co-ops,” said Van Erden.
“Chobani is sold mainly through retail, which was not impacted as heavily by the pandemic,” said Currie. “Farms that sold to wholesale buyers like schools and restaurants were effected more when the pandemic hit.”
Van Erden said he believes the milk price has the potential to stay suppressed. “We have a really big financial hole to dig ourselves out of,” he said.