HOOPER, Neb. — Lowell Mueller was working alongside his nephew Jordan inside the machine shed as the dairy cows chewed their cud outside on yet another rainy day.
“Here’s where you can find many farmers these days,” Mueller said as he stepped outside the building. “We are all down. There’s no question about it. It’s just the flooding thing.”
While Highway 91 and Highway 30 near Mueller’s dairy have opened since the flooding of the Elkhorn River in his area, many dairy farmers across the U.S. are still drowning under a host of challenges. Despite the obstacles, some dairies like Mueller’s have survived.
Mueller said there have always been cows milked at the fifth-generation, family-operated dairy. His grandfather Herbert milked shorthorns and his father Orlando, a Korean War veteran who is now 90, and his wife Lois, switched to Holsteins in the 1950s.
“Dad’s farming is mowing now,” Mueller admitted. “But they are both still very active and interested in what’s going on.”
Their son is active, too. The eldest of five children, born in 1952, Mueller farms with his two brothers, Dennis and Larry. He and his wife, also named Lois, moved back in 1974 after college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where Mueller studied animal science and ag econ. The couple had three children — Reid, Kelly and Paige.
“When we came back, dad was milking 60 cows,” he said. “Through the 1980s, we expanded to 150 and in the 1990s, we got up to 200. We have not expanded our numbers in the last 15 years. While I always have enjoyed dairying, the idea of expanding has always looked like more of an expense than anything else.”
In addition to family labor, the Muellers now have two hired men who do the milking. One of them has been with them for 20 years.
“We are survivors of the 1980s and back then we decided we all needed to get off-farm income in addition to continuing to work at the dairy,” Mueller said. “That is how we survived. It is almost that situation now. Lois worked in several office management positions and when my mother retired from bookkeeping on the farm, I needed someone back here, so Lois took over that role.
“We are also a registered herd and have always sold breeding stock and commercial bulls. That has been a challenging thing the past couple years because dairy farmers do not have the money to spend right now.”
Mueller was always involved in their milk co-op, and then about 10 years ago, he was asked to serve on a board on the checkoff side of the industry, which he said “snowballed”.
He explained that the dairy checkoff was formerly a state organization, the American Dairy Association/Dairy Council of Nebraska, before merging with Midwest Dairy Association. Through that transition, he accepted a position on the Midwest Dairy Corporate Board and later ran for the national board, called Dairy Management Inc.
When serving on the national board, he added, members are assigned to several committees. He chose the export committee and is currently serving as vice chairman of the Export Oversight Committee.
“While we do a lot of promotion domestically, I think we have more opportunities to export,” Mueller said. “I had the privilege of being one of five dairymen that went to Japan and Hong Kong last fall for a trade mission. The potential there was very eye-opening. In Japan, we learned they have a dairy industry; however, they can only supply about 70 percent of their needs, and they are the number one cheese importer in the world.”
He added that the United States seemed to be behind in dairy industry promotional efforts with regard to other countries, noting that Australia and New Zealand were promoting overseas before the U.S.
To improve its presence abroad, he said promotions staff has been increased, and a new office is currently underway in China.
“It’s the relationships we are developing, that are key,” he explained. “We are also working on the North African market, and the Middle East is a good market.
“Still, there are a lot of governmental obstacles we have to deal with. The tariffs have been challenging. I do not know how this is going to shake out, but tariffs have definitely hurt our milk prices. When you do not get trade agreements and when you get the EU and New Zealand ahead of us, we lose markets. There is no question about it.”
He added that members of the Export Oversight Committee are anxious to complete negotiations on the Mexican/Canadian trade agreement, as Mexico remains the top export market for the U.S.
However, coinciding with the trade issue is the labor issue.
“None of us want to see illegal immigration, but we do need immigration laws that support labor in agriculture,” Mueller said. “Part of the immigration laws do not favor the dairy industry because a lot of visas are temporary. Dairies need help year-round.”
While there are challenges for the industry as a whole, the Muellers are working on transitioning their own dairy to the next generation.
“The challenge right now is the lack of income,” Mueller said. “You would like to do different things than what you are doing, but the money isn’t there. In the 1980s, interest rates hurt, now it is low prices and our expenses keep going higher and we do not get enough income. Milk prices now are what we got 20 years ago, and our expenses are probably double. We rent land, and cash rent went through the roof and we are dealing with low grain prices, even though we recently had a spike, they are around prices 20 years ago.
“But I have been farming for 45 years and still have a dad that grew up in the 1930s and went through the droughts of the 1950s. We’ve also survived the 1980s. There are always these cycles. The futures are showing an improvement this fall, so I am thinking things are going to start to get better. I have to believe that.”
Kerry Hoffschneider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.