It’s become an all-too familiar story. A local dairy—and it could be an orchard or a produce farm—shuts down, and it’s barely a blip on the local news.

Here in western Washington state, the Bartelheimer Brothers dairy, located about 40 miles north of Seattle in Snohomish County, is preparing to auction off 800 Holstein cows, tractors and other equipment this week. The occasion: The dissolution of a farm the family has operated for almost a century, according to the local newspaper, The Herald.

Jason Bartelheimer and his three-year-old
daughter, Grace, look over the animals at
Bartelheimer Brothers dairy in Snohomish, Wash.
Copyright © 2010 The Herald.

As the story stated, “The disappearance of the fourth-generation dairy is the latest blow to a dwindling local industry hit hard by low milk prices, high feed prices and a tough time for borrowing money.”

The owner-operator, Jason Bartelheimer, told the newspaper that, “Our goal is to pay the bank off and to rent the land so we can keep the facility in the family. I’m hopeful somebody will move in and farm the ground.”

Good luck with that.

Bartelheimer’s great-grandparents emigrated from Germany and farmed briefly in Nebraska before moving west in 1912. His father and uncle incorporated Bartelheimer Brothers dairy in the 1970s, back when Snohomish County was home to an estimated 650 dairies. By 1990, there were 111. In 2010, only 27 remain, according to figures from the Washington State University Extension service.

Is bigger really better?
Why is that? We know the reasons. During that time period, the average number of cows per farm rose nearly tenfold, to 304, from an average of only about 30 in 1960. Today, the larger dairies house as many as 10,000 cows. That makes it tough for mid-size farms like Bartelheimer’s to stay solvent.

“We used to be considered a large farm,” he said. “Not anymore.”

The dairy industry’s size and scale have been driven by a phenomenal increase in average yield per cow, according to statistics compiled by Carl Coppock, Ph.D., a dairy industry consultant and former Animal Science Professor at Texas A&M University. Although per capita production and consumption of milk has been relatively stable since the 1970s, annual production per cow, which averaged about 5,300 pounds in 1950, is today more than 17,000 pounds per cow per year.

Overall, the U. S. dairy industry has seen a nearly six-fold increase in productivity in the 20th century, an increase Coppock attributes to genetic gains (about one-third), better nutrition, improved management skills and technological inputs (the other two-thirds). The increased capital costs of larger operations, however, have caused many smaller dairies to exit the industry, not to mention that the total milk production has often exceeded the industry’s ability to market its products at a price that covers production costs.

As a consequence of that consolidation, there has been a movement of cows from the traditional Northeast and Midwest dairy states to the West, especially to California, now the top state in both total milk production and the number of cows.

Such large productivity gains in required the application of three technologies:

• Milk production records for a large number of cows began to be coupled with sire identification
• Artificial insemination became widespread
• Nutrition was improved, as science showed that cows produced more milk when concentrated feeding was increased to about 20 pounds a day

Nobody advocates turning away from such advances—nobody who’s actually in the business, that is. But the fallout from this relentless drive toward greater efficiency leaves casualties like the Bartelheimer family in its wake.

The closure of an older local dairy is troubling, said Jim Werkhoven, a longtime dairyman near Monroe, Wash., and chairman of the board at the Northwest Dairy Association, the co-op that markets under the Darigold brand. “You have a whole bunch of farmers who will be going to the [Bartelheimer] sale, and a lot of them are going to be thinking, ‘How much longer am I going to be in business?’ ” Werkhoven told the newspaper.

Things became difficult for Northwest dairies when export markets dried up in 207 and 2008. The increased diversion of corn for ethanol production has driven up feed prices and now banks are reluctant to lend money, because the larger dairies are much more capital-intensive.

On top of it all, there have been times in the last two years when milk prices failed to cover the cost of feeding the cows. “You lose $900 per cow and that cow's only worth $1,000. In one year's time you’ve basically lost the value of your herd,” Werkhoven said. “That's what happened in 2009.”

Now, some would argue that the consolidation the dairy industry has suffered is inevitable, maybe even a good thing in terms of forcing maximum efficiency on an industry. According to that theory, consumers ultimately benefit from lower prices. That might be true if we’re talking about smart phones or software.

With something as fundamental as feeding ourselves, however, the loss of farmland and food production of any sort poses a real threat to our national security. It’s bad enough in 2010 that we can’t manufacture certain military hardware without imported components.

But if it ever gets to the point that we can’t make breakfast without depending on foreign suppliers, we’re toast.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator