Farm Horizons, February 1998

Area vet is a cheerleader for dairy industry

By ANDREA VARGO

People wonder why Harlan Anderson of Cokato tries so hard to get new recruits into the dairy business.

"It makes me feel good," he remarked. "I don't get a penny out of it."

Anderson loves farming, and the dairy industry needs a cheerleader, he said.

In conjunction with Roger Strom of WCCO Radio, Anderson helped coordinate a week-long series of programs that asked a lot of hard questions about the dairy industry.

Anderson was featured on the last program of that week, and he used his time to promote dairy as an excellent lifestyle that also makes money.

Strom had some questions as to why Minnesota dairy cows produce more milk when they are sold to other states.

"Maybe it is cow comfort. It could be that farmers don't pay enough attention to this," said Strom.

Strom described cow comfort as everything from bedding and environment to checking the inflation level on milking machines.

"Look at the ages of the older dairy producers. Perhaps they are not open to change as much as the younger producers," said Strom.

There are people out there who are making money on $12 or $13 dollar milk, he said, but sometimes our work ethic gets in the way.

According to Strom, if a dairyperson produces milk in an inefficient way and wants to make more money, he just says, "I'll work harder and longer."

Instead, he should work smarter, said Strom.

Anderson agrees with a lot of the things Strom said, but adds other items to the dairy equation.

He said he can see the infrastructure of the dairy business falling apart: fewer experienced veterinarians, lower quality replacement animals available, and fewer people interested in the lifestyle.

Because there are fewer dairy farms, veterinarians don't have the chance to practice enough pregnancy checks to be 100 percent accurate, and they should be accurate, he said.

Farmers who want replacement heifers in the future may have difficulty finding them, said Anderson.

"We supply Texas and other states with heifers, and they are willing to pay top dollar for the best breeding and the best animals.

"We have been draining the best animals out of Minnesota and Wisconsin for a long time now," he said.

Loss of dairy producer numbers is another problem, and this is where Anderson says the industry needs a cheerleader.

In order to get new producers started, Anderson advocates a program that lets the neophyte get his or her feet wet (yes, women are going into business for themselves, too).

His advice to the new recruit is to find a dairy operation that is appealing and work for them for six months.

"If the enthusiasm is still there, as a mentor, I'll buy a herd of cows and rent a barn for six months," he said.

"Either one of us can quit at any time," said Anderson.

The new dairyperson can take about eight milkings per month off, whichever ones make sense with his/her life.

"In my experience, it has never been a problem to take several days a week off.

"I have a list of experienced relief milkers that just won't quit," said Anderson.

Most farmers don't bother to take those days off. They like what they do, he said.

With the right plan, it can be fun, pleasant, and it can pay well, he said.

"I can usually tell in two months if it is going to work," he said.

If this is what that person wants to do, we find a source of capital, get 100 percent funding, and rent a barn.

"There are oodles of nice facilities sitting out there empty, so we can be pretty choosy," Anderson said.

"If the bank asks for money down, the creameries are willing to back that. To the best of my knowledge, no creamery has ever spent a dollar."

In this way, the dairyperson gets into milking full-time with no money down.

Early in the plan, the disposal of manure needs to be addressed, said Anderson. If there is a farmer willing to accept the manure, there is usually not a problem.

"Generally speaking, there is always a crop farmer who appreciates the addition of organic matter to his soil," he remarked.

"We avoid spreading manure on hot, muggy days in order to keep the odor less offensive. It is easier to address problems before they become mountains. We try to be good neighbors."

Next, a feed supply is located. Most feed companies are happy to wait until that feed is turned into milk. This month's feed becomes next month's milk check.

When a dairyman buys all his feed, he sometimes gets talked into stuff he doesn't need. Anderson said people are not always as honest as they could be.

"We (as farmers) are not very good buyers of commodities. The big corporations have professional buyers, so they make very few mistakes," he said.

There is a place for a professional buyer in this system. The school system (vocational or university) is where these people are going to come from in the future, he said.

Right now we have good people who are already in the system. Lots of these retired farmers are the talent that will need to be tapped, Anderson said.

"Wright County has some really good dairy farmers, and I think society will pay a price if they are not encouraged to participate in the future of the dairy industry", he said.

Some of those farmers are retired, said Anderson, but they have a lot of knowledge and expertise to offer younger farmers.

Some of those people are good feed buyers, and others are good at herd management, etc.

A group of farmers might use one of these experienced people as a feed buyer. This buyer might have a variety of feedstuffs available, then a nutritionist needs to come into the picture to determine the proper mix for each farmer's situation, he said.

Because cash flow is a very big issue, new producers are not allowed to raise young stock. It takes two years to see any revenue from young stock he said.

It can take about $1,200 to raise a heifer, and she can be sold for $900 to $1,000.

Unless they are raised in sufficient numbers with a carefully constructed plan for a profit, it just isn't worthwhile at first, said Anderson.

Dairy is value added, he said. If the farmer sells his corn, it is gone and that is the end of it.

If that same corn is run through a dairy cow, labor is needed to milk the cows, move the manure, feed the cows, and grind the feed, etc.

In addition to profits for the dairy farmer, other businesses profit from dairying as well.

The machinery dealer, plumbers, electricians, hardware stores, the local lumber company, feed dealers, stores that sell pitchforks and clothing all make money from the dairy farmer.

The more money from the operation that is spent in the local area, the more value that original corn has.

"If we ship our corn to Texas, and those farmers milk the cows, the money is gone right away.

The closer we stay to the end user, the more value we can put on our product," Anderson said.

There is a place for everyone in the dairy business, said Anderson, from the small operator with 17 cows to the large operation with 1,200 cows.

Size is not as important as working smart, he said, and the lifestyle is good.

Anderson describes the dairy business as very desirable for family life.

"I feel like I've raised my family in a great atmosphere that has supplied a great product," he said.

As times change, changes are needed in the dairy industry, and they are not hard to make, said Anderson.

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