Economic stress and its accompanying behavioral health perils are persistent for many dairy producers, which makes this form of agricultural livelihood more troublesome than for most segments of agriculture. According to USDA data, the number of certified dairy producers in the U.S. has declined from 136,000 in 1992 to 34,000 in 2019.
The loss of dairy farms has occurred mostly among family-sized operations, although several large operations with more than 5,000 cows have also left the industry. According to U.S. Department of Labor data (https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/milk-prices-adjusted-for-inflation), during the time frame from 2000 to 2020 the market price for milk has been mostly at or below break-even prices, with only brief episodes of profitability.
There were upsurges in calls and emails from stressed dairy farmers and family members to farm crisis hotlines in a seven-state Midwestern region (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) whenever prices for milk dropped significantly below break-even for more than a few months. The hotline managers provided monthly reports to AgriWellness, Inc., a nonprofit entity which I direct (www.agriwellnessinc.org).
Suicides by dairy farmers also increased during the worst economic episodes for dairy producers. A June 2019 Matter of Fact television program hosted by Soledad O’Brien examined the high rate of suicide by dairy farmers, including a Wisconsin farmer who was marginalized out of a multi-generational family operation.
The International Dairy Foods Association reported on Oct. 8, 2021, (https://www.idfa.org/news/u-s-dairy-exports-volume-sets-all-time-high-mark-in-2020-according-to-usda) that the marketing segment of the dairy industry achieved record exports of dairy products in 2020, as well as the overall highest annual consumption ever of dairy products per capita in the U.S., even though fluid milk consumption has dropped gradually for many years.
The record consumption of dairy products in 2020 was due largely to the highest ever use of butter in the U.S., while consumption of cheese, ice cream, and yogurt also remained high.
Yet, dairy farms have declined 75 percent since 1992. Why?
Several factors contribute to the demise of family-sized dairy operations. Economy of scale is a major factor.
Large dairy operations with well-financed investors gain contractual advantages by supplying set amounts of milk year-round. They have more leverage in negotiating favorable prices than smaller operations.
Major milk processors prefer large dairies because of lower transportation costs when their milk delivery trucks can make a single stop, whereas the haulers must make multiple stops at smaller dairy operations for a truckload.
Moreover, large operations that confine cows continuously in pens and barns, feed them the same purchased diet daily, and breed them to freshen year-round, can supply a consistent amount of milk, whereas most family-sized dairies favor cows that freshen in the spring and summer when they produce more milk and utilize pastures for grazing but taper off their production as winter approaches. Consumers purchase fewer dairy items during the winter months.
Additionally, the amount of milk produced per cow has increased due to improved genetics, which gives large operations an advantage by breeding and purchasing highly productive, albeit expensive, cows. Small dairy farms usually can’t afford such rapid genetic improvements to their cow herds.
Large dairy units also rely heavily on the cheapest sources of laborers, such as immigrants from foreign countries who will work for low wages, whereas family-owned dairies generally rely on little hired help and often support more than one farm family.
Generally, family-sized dairy operators are unfavorably positioned in most raw milk markets unless they find a profitable niche. How can their economic and behavioral well-being be protected?
Drawing on reports from many dairy farmers, as well as my consultations with dairy organizations, several recommendations emerge:
• Niches in the dairy industry are developing, especially for certified organic milk producers as consumer preferences shift increasingly toward organic foods.
• Although it takes three years to transition from conventional to certified organic production, it’s easier for family-controlled operations to convert to certified organic milk production because they can usually furnish their own pastures and other feed, as well as the labor, and “know-how.”
• There are shifts in consumer preferences for filtered milk, specialty cheeses and ice cream, especially when these products meet organic standards. Even vodka can be made from the lactose in whey; it has been described as clear in appearance, tasty, not highly sweet, and with a smooth creaminess that is delicious.
• Dairy producers benefit from the formation of community support groups that bring together teams of advisors to assist farmers with their dairying decisions and psychological trauma. Social-emotional understanding from others greatly alleviates the anxieties of troubled producers.
• Useful information about dairying options and behavioral health management can be obtained from a number of dairy producer organizations, such as the Center for Dairy Excellence, the Dairy Girls Network, the Dairy Farmers of America, and regional organizations such as the Midwest Dairy Association.
Although suicides by farmers overall appear to be declining, suicides by dairy farmers remain high. It’s not easy being a dairy farmer today.
Dr. Rosmann is a farmer and psychologist at Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at email@example.com.
Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has directed behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.