2013: A mixed bag

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Entee Sublett and his dad have to buy all of the feed needed for their 750-cow milking herd, so high feed cost the past few years has taken its toll. In fact, they haven’t had a good year since 2008-2009, when things really started to nosedive.

 

Mixed Bag “The last several years have eaten into our equity,” says Sublett, a 31-year-old dairyman from central Texas. “It’s taken everything we have to survive.”

But things are starting to improve. In October, Sublett’s area got 11 inches of rain, which brought back some green to a drought-ravaged landscape. And, lower feed costs have returned some green to his pocketbook.

2013 may go down as a turn-around year. “Without all of the mounting debt from previous years, this would have been a good year,” he says.

Sublett’s experience pretty well describes the situation: It’s been a mixed bag around the country this year, depending on the weather.

Fickle weather
For Clarence Castleberg, dairy farmer from northwest Wisconsin, the weather wasn’t so good.

Winterkill from cold temperatures in the spring and dry weather in the summer caused him to lose half of his normal hay production. That forced him to buy hay for 150 cows. As of early November, he was buying hay locally from other farmers in the area, but worried that the local supply could dry up in a few months.

“Some farmers are in good shape in my area, and some of us are suffering from the low milk price and lack of feeds,” he says.

Castleberg acknowledges that he falls into the latter category. Milk prices at $18 to $19 per hundredweight, he says, are below his cost of production.

The cost of all inputs — from seed to fertilizer — has risen, taking the profit out of the operation. The only bright spot is a lower corn price.

By mid-November, the cost of ground corn (delivered from feed mills) had dropped considerably from last spring. In many locations in the West, ground corn had dropped to around $220 per ton, compared to $310 or so last May and June.

Garden of Eden
Last year, producers in southern Michigan had to deal with dry conditions. This year, more than one farmer in that area (south of Interstate 94) has commented that it’s more like the Garden of Eden — thanks to timely rains.

So says Ken Nobis, who farms in central Michigan, but has a good overview of the entire state since he is the leader of a milk cooperative.

“I think everyone has enough feed this year,” he says.

A similar story comes from New York State.

Sandy Stauffer, who farms in northern New York, says it’s been a good year this year — and from a crop standpoint, probably one of the best years ever. One reason: Frost didn’t come until Oct. 20, which is late for northern New York.

With good crop-growing conditions and favorable milk prices, Stauffer says 2013 was a better-than-average year.

Fellow New Yorker Carroll Wade agrees.

“We are going to come out fairly well this year,” says

Wade, who runs a 45-cow organic dairy farm with his son near Jasper, N.Y.

He may have to buy a small amount of hay this year — perhaps 2 to 3 percent of his needs — but that’s a big improvement from 2012 when he had to buy about 25 percent of his forages because of droughty weather.

Getting more mileage out of his grass hay crop has helped Wade catch up on bills, which has helped make this a better-than-normal year.

“Other farms in our area that grow corn and beans are extremely pleased,” he adds. Some have reported having some of the best corn they have ever grown.

External factors
Asked if 2013 was a good year, California dairy farmer George Mertens answers, “not really.”

“We’re behind the eight-ball in California, there’s no getting around it,” he says, referring to the state’s milk marketing order and a recent decision by state food and agriculture secretary Karen Ross to only temporarily extend price relief for dairy farmers through next June.

Mertens says the price structure in California puts the state’s dairy farmers at a disadvantage to farmers in other parts of the nation.

Mertens, who milks about 800 cows near Somona, Calif., says the tough times experienced by California dairy farmers in recent years has caused many to explore other options, such as growing almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

And no discussion of the year would be complete without recognizing the role of exports.

Today, one out of seven tanker loads of milk (or solids equivalent) is exported. That could soon become one out of every six tanker loads based on the momentum experienced late in the year.

In any event, 2013 will be another record year for exports.


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