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Once a prime producer of cow milk, Missouri has lost a large portion of its dairy industry in recent years. According to the Missouri Dairy Association, the Show-Me-State has gone from being the 14th largest dairy producer in the U.S. to the 21st largest in just over a decade . In the first of a two-part series on Missouri's dairy decline, KSMU's Benjamin Fry reports on the difficulties facing dairy farmers.
At two months old, this Holstein calf now spends its days in a shaded pen area on a dairy farm west of Billings.
But it could spend its adult life providing milk many miles away.
Farm owner Jon Staiger says he believes the days of small Missouri dairy operations like his are numbered.
"We're a lost breed, you know. We're all getting older and not that many young ones going into it"
Staiger's life on his dairy farm has meant milking twice a day, nearly every day for over 35 years.
Before that, his father had started the farming business after immigrating to the United States.
"My dad came over from Germany 1925 and then he lived to be 95. And then I took over after I got married in '72, and been at it ever since."
But the dairy operation will probably end with Staiger, as his children have chosen different professions.
For the time being, staying healthy and being more frugall has kept his farm afloat.
But others he knows haven't been as lucky.
"If you talk to your milk hauler, there's been a lot leave. This is one of the last roads that he's got three pick-ups on. A lot of them have gone out."
The decline is not unique to this area, nor is it new.
The Missouri Dairy Association has recorded a steady decrease in the state's dairy operations over the past 30 years.
In 1975 Missouri had 21,000 dairy farms.
Now, there are about 2,100.
The majority of farms going out of business have an average size of 60 cows per herd.
Ron Boyer with the Missouri Dairy Growth Council says today many small dairy farmers are struggling to make a profit.
"Input cost of producing milk is almost equivalent to the price you get for the milk so the profit per cow is just very, very small. So if you're milking 50 cows, that would practically be no income"
The idea of selling out to large dairy companies is more enticing than ever.
The economy makes it difficult for dairies to turn a profit.
While other forms of agriculture are also hurting, those who raise milk cows may be in the most pain.
Tommy Perkins is a Missouri State University Professor of animal science.
He says farmers raising livestock solely for meat spend less on feed and fuel while dairy cows need higher quality grazing pastures to produce milk.
"A dairy farmer's going to have more cost in their fertilizer of those fields to produce the soybean, the corn, the haleage, whereas the beef producer will have less time in a tractor, buying fuel, particularly diesel fuel. So there's got to be an advantage to the beef operator when it comes to total expenses in that interest."
Quantity also matters when you factor in the costs to feed a dairy herd.
Staiger explains the demands put on the typical cow that has given birth.
"She has her calf and we expect her to milk a hundred pounds a day. We expect her to breed back in sixty, ninety days, continue to milk, become pregnant, go dry, and have another calf"
Dairy farmers do a lot of business with local feed and farm equipment stores.
A recent University of Wisconsin study found that an individual cow generates around $14,000 in economic activity.
But when enough local farmers cease to milk, often stores have to close.
That means existing dairy operations have to spend more to drive farther to get the essentials.
Staiger says this burden is the very reason many of his friends have found a life after dairy.
"We don't have anybody to pass it on to. Truman says the Buck stops here and there's a lot of truth in that. It stops here."
For KSMU news, I'm Benjamin Fry.