Farm Horizons, Sept. 2003

Dairy cows don't deliver

By Chris Schultz
Staff Writer

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 1993 issue of Farm Horizons. It is now followed with an update entitled "Dairy cows still don't deliver - 10 years later."

The rooster in the hen house is crowing; the dairy farmer has been hard at work; his bulk tank is full of milk. And down the road a bit, just over the horizon, the early morning sun glistens off the huge, shiny, silver tank of a milk truck rolling down the highway.

Another day ­ like all 365 of them in the dairy industry ­ has begun.

People living in rural and agricultural communities are familiar with the very complex dairy or milk industry. Dairy farms, milk trucks, and creameries are a common part of life.

Lights shining from a dairy barn at dawn on a Sunday morning are a part of life. Shift changes at Mid-Am Dairymen and Bongards are a daily routine.

Without a peep or complaint from the customer, a gallon of milk for two or three bucks is always available at the grocery store.

But, what about the milk haulers ­ the truck drivers? Milk doesn't magically appear in creameries or grocery stores, and dairy cows don't deliver. So, how does it work and what is it like hauling milk for a living?

Curtis Sauter, a milk hauler from Norwood said "It's a lot like farming. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. The cows have to get milked every day and the milk has to get hauled every day."

Sauter probably isn't much different from most milk haulers. He drives 10 hours a day, seven days a week, takes every other Sunday off, and is very dedicated to his business. "If you're not willing to make a big commitment, don't get in a milk truck," he said.

Sauter has been hauling milk to Bongards Creamery for dairy farmers since 1965. He runs his own business, and currently employs four full-time drivers, a few part-time drivers, and has four trucks on the road every day of the year.

"It takes a lot of sacrifice. You don't get to see your family a lot. I sometimes think there is a special place in heaven for the wives of milk truck drivers, but, I made a commitment. The milk has to get picked up and I've been in it so long I can't change," he said.

The typical day for Sauter and his drivers starts at 6 a.m. Each truck takes a well-planned, predetermined route, makes an average of 18 pick-ups per day, and will have close to 36,000 pounds of milk in the tank when it arrives at Bongards around 5 p.m.

Each milk pick-up the trucker makes is highly regulated and precise. The United States Department of Agriculture has a long list of standards and procedures each truck must meet and each driver must follow.

All equipment must be properly sanitized at each pick-up. The temperature of the milk must be recorded, quantity is measured and recorded, sight and smell of the milk are checked, and two samples are taken at every stop.

Each sample is properly marked and delivered to the creamery for various tests and quality assurance. The list of requirements and regulations goes on and is very demanding.

The amount of milk picked up and the length of time at each stop vary. The average stop lasts about 25 minutes and the trucker may pick up anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 or more pounds of milk. There may be a milk check to drop off, or a pound or two of butter to deliver, and a short conversation with the farmer isn't unusual.

Sauter said the regulations are tough and are always getting tougher. "They have changed the industry a lot since I started," he said.

As far as a typical day goes, milk haulers have their ups and downs just like everyone else. "Some days I have to force myself to get in the truck, and other days I wish I had 10 more stops," he said.

When you say the word 'truck,' Sauter's eyes sparkle just like the sun glistening off the stainless steel tank mounted on his truck. He likes to drive and he loves trucks. Sauter is very proud of his fleet.

He drives a tandem, tri-axle Freight Liner that has a little plate mounted on the side, with the engraving on it, "Custom built by Freight Liner for Curtis Sauter." The truck gets about seven miles per gallon, can carry 36,775 pounds of milk, goes through tires like crazy, and is expected to last and run well for at least 500,000 miles.

Sauter does most of the maintenance on his trucks, and when he's tooling down the road in his custom built Freight Liner with a full load of milk, he's on top of the world. "I like to drive. I can't sit behind a desk eight hours a day, I have to be on the go," he said.

It's a big sacrifice and it takes a lot of dedication to be a milk hauler. The dedication Sauter has to Bongards runs deep, and the relationship he has with his patrons is strong. "I am very dedicated to Bongards. I started hauling for them and I'll always haul for them," Sauter said.

When it comes to farmers, Sauter is quick to point out that service is the key. "There aren't many dairy farmers left out there. The competition is tough and you have to treat them right," he said. "You lose some patrons and gain some. But everything has changed so much. We have to travel farther and farther away to haul the same amount of milk. It's not like it was 10 years ago."

The words 'competition' and 'change' are prevalent in today's milk hauling and dairy industry. There are more empty dairy barns than full ones. Small creameries and co-ops are no longer a fixture in every small town. Herd sizes are bigger, machinery is bigger, farms are bigger, production is higher, government regulation is tougher, and competition is fierce.

All these changes. Bigger, higher, tougher. They all add up to one word that doesn't sit too well with most people in the dairy industry - corporate.

A little change doesn't scare Sauter much.

But, the word 'corporate' sends a chill through his spine and makes him weak in the knees. "There are so many farmers that aren't milking anymore, a lot that are right on the verge of quitting, and the farmers that are still going seem to get bigger and bigger. Some day we might have just a few corporate farms and the independent milk hauler will be out of business. They will haul the milk themselves," he said.

When Sauter started hauling milk in 1965, he picked up canned and bulk milk. Creameries were local. There were a lot of farmers producing milk and he didn't have to drive very far to get a full load on the truck. "I hardly have anyone left on my original Plato-Lester Prairie route. Most of them just don't milk anymore," he said.

Like every milk hauler, Sauter has to keep his trucks full of milk to stay in business. With fewer numbers of producers in the local area and the number dropping at a consistent pace, Sauter has to drive farther to pick up the same amount of milk he has in the past. Today, he has trucks making daily trips to farmers as far away as Little Falls.

"There is a demand for milk out there. The creameries have become more competitive. They have to go farther away to get producers and milk to keep their volume the same. That puts me in the same situation," he said.

"It's hard to understand. There is a demand for milk, and the prices in the store are going up. But, the farmer isn't getting paid more for his milk."

Milk pricing and production control are very complex issues that are difficult to understand. Each farmer and every politician may have a different idea or solution.

But, when the farmer isn't making it, neither is the milk hauler. Like farming, all the costs to run the business have went up and the income down. More in and less out.

Rates for the delivery or hauling of milk are determined by the creamery, the actual buyer of the milk.

While the price paid to the producer of milk has fluctuated consistently over the last several years, the rate paid to the hauler hasn't. Many milk haulers have not received a rate increase since 1981. The entire industry is walking an economic tightrope without a pole to balance it.

"My business was more profitable in 1965 when I was hauling canned milk. We have had to get bigger and much more efficient, just like the farmer," Sauter said.

The total amount of milk produced is down compared to a few years ago, and there is a lot of competition out there for the milk that is being produced. Creameries or buyers like Bongards, Kraft, Mid-Am, and Land O' Lakes are fighting to keep their volume up. They are expanding their once local and well-defined areas in search of producers willing to sell them milk. And without much choice, the milk truck must follow. The milk hauler is the link between the buyer and the seller. He can't determine his own fate and his future is as unpredictable as the weather he drives in every day.

When Curtis Sauter got behind the wheel of his first milk truck, he saw a bright future and a chance to be his own boss. He made a big commitment, and it has worked well for him. Sauter has a son who also has made the commitment and drives every day. But, Sauter has many concerns, and isn't sure what the future holds for a milk hauler.

"When I started, things were stable and the future of agriculture looked good. Today, things are different. A future in milk hauling may not be very bright. Huge farms run by the government or big corporations may not be very far away, and that worries me a lot," he said.

"I'm just not sure if it's a good business to get into anymore."

In nearly 28 years of hauling milk, Sauter has had his ups and downs. Driving and being his own boss have been the good points.

As far as the downs go, Sauter said the sacrifice of being away from his family so much is the most difficult. He also mentioned a few other things like snow storms and delivering a check to a farmer when the milk prices are down. "There always has to be a snow storm," he said.

The future is hard to predict.

But, the milk has to get picked up, seven days a week, 365 days year, and if you asked Sauter if he would do it all over again, he would tell you, "I'd be driving. But, I'm not sure if it would be behind the wheel of a milk truck."

For Sauter, the trucks are in the shed and the day is over. But, there are 364 more to go.

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