Farm Horizons, Sept. 2003

Dairy cows still don't deliver ­ 10 years later

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

This article is an update to the "Dairy cows don't deliver" article, which originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 1993 issue of Farm Horizons.

It is 6:45 a.m., the sun is starting to peek out for a new day, and Curtis Sauter is ready to hit the road in his Peterbilt semi with a load of steel, headed east into Wisconsin.

This is a slightly different load from what Sauter once hauled.

Sauter used to be a milk truck driver from the Plato-Norwood area. He hauled milk from area farms to Bongards' Creamery seven days a week, 365 days a year, taking only every other Sunday off.

"Now, it's mostly playground equipment, loads of wood, and steel," Sauter said.

As he hops into the cab of his semi, ready to make the day-long trip into Wisconsin, Sauter recalls his decision to stop hauling milk in 1996.

"I really loved the job, but could see that the future in it was not the best," he said. "There were no young farmers starting in, and I figured my income would go down."

Sauter sold part of his milk route to Bob Fritz and Sons of Cologne, and he sold part of it to Myers of Randall. At his peak, he had four trucks running, with one spare, in case of breakdowns and holidays.

"Right after we sold the route, we had the semis ordered, and we hauled gravel for Mullen Trucking out of Shakopee," he said. He did that for eight months.

"I didn't think that was my way of making a living ­ I didn't like it," he said. "We started getting into different things."

Sauter now takes flatbeds for his trips, and has been doing that ever since. He works closely with Bruce Barfnecht of Barfnecht Trucking in Delano, who does his dispatching, and lines up his routes.

Sauter hauls Millerbernd Lighting light poles, playground equipment, and frequently transfers steel from EMJ, Inc., which has a plant in Blaine.

"You get to see a lot of different parts of the country, different people, you never do the same thing, and you never know where you're going from day-to-day," he said. "I just love that. I don't want to have to worry about where I am going."

Whenever Sauter is at a fish fry, dance, or community event, he frequently runs into farmers whom he once hauled milk for.

"A lot of these farmers I see now aren't even milking anymore, so they are in the same shoes I was in," he said. "So, it's getting fewer and fewer out there, and the ones that are there are getting bigger and bigger. The smaller ones can't compete with what the bigger ones offer.

"Maybe that's the way to go, but I am not a strong believer in that ­ I don't think the quality is there as much as when there were smaller farmers," Sauter said.

Sauter figures that if he had his milk route now, he would be down two trucks from what he used to haul, in a matter of seven years.

"That isn't real good," he said. "You always want to think that your volume is going to go up. It's tough out there for farmers ­ the milk price is worse now than seven years ago when I quit."

"The costs of improving equipment are getting more expensive, but the price of milk stays the same," he said. "It just doesn't add up. It's a shame seeing those farms sitting there idle."

After seven drops at four different towns in Wisconsin, Sauter picks up a load of lumber destined for the Home Depot in Mankato, which has to be there by 6 a.m. the next morning.

He pulls back into Barfnecht's lot in Delano, contemplating about whether he should drive through the rest of the night, getting to Mankato and sleeping in his truck.

His other option is stopping at home to see his wife, take a shower, and get some shut-eye there, before heading out around 4 a.m. to meet his 6 a.m. drop-time.

Whichever choice he makes, the load of lumber is sure to arrive on time, and Sauter will enjoy every mile along the way.

It's a new generation, but the same old process

The process of hauling milk has not changed much in the past 10 years; however, the amounts and prices have decreased.

For Damon Kline of Cologne, who hauls for Bob Fritz and Sons, he has had driving in his blood since the tender age of four.

"He (Fritz) used to haul milk at my grandpa's farm when I was four, and I used to sit in his truck and play, and that's kind of how I got my start," Kline said.

He has been hauling for Bob Fritz and Sons for about six years. His day begins in the Winsted or Plato area, continuing through Silver Lake, and some farms near New Germany and Waverly. He began hauling on weekends, and it eventually turned into full time.

Once Kline arrives at a farm, he goes into the area where the bulk tank is, and takes a weight measurement to see how much milk is in the tank.

He also takes a sample of milk at each farm so it can be tested at the creamery's lab.

Some farms milk twice a day, Kline said. Sometimes, larger farms will milk three different times.

The testing and samples are done at each spot to make sure contaminated milk does not get into the big batch once back at the creamery.

"We can't pick up any milk from cows that have been treated for any sickness, or that have antibiotics in them," Kline said. "The medicine that would get inside the milk could make people sick."

If contaminated milk accidently gets into a bulk tank and is taken to the creamery, it will show up as "hot" when tested.

Once this is discovered, the bad milk can be traced back to which farm it was picked up from, and the farmer is fined.

A lot of cows get treated for different things. If a new cow comes in, its milk must also be tested before it can be put in the bulk tank.

Once his truck is full, he gets to Bongards, and gets his truck weighed. A milk sample is also taken there.

There is also a 20-minute washing and cleaning process that the truck goes through. After this process, he weighs out again, and gets ready to start the next day.

None of the milk that gets hauled to Bongards is used for drinking milk, he said, but rather used for butter and cheese.

There are actually two different grades of milk ­ Grades A and B, Kline said. "The Grade A farmers, which is a majority of them, get inspected twice a year.

"Class B farms get inspected once a year. A main thing in grading is the location of the well on the farm. The grade A ones are a little higher quality. Grade A gets paid about $1 more per hundred weight.

"Right now, the cost is $11.80 for every hundred pounds produced. For almost a year, it was down to $9 to $10 dollars. To break even is about $17 dollars for every hundred pounds, so a lot of them have been suffering for quite awhile," he said.

The industry is declining, according to Kline. A lot of farmers' children do not want to continue to work the farm, but rather want to get a different job.

A lot of small farms sell their cows to large out-of-state farmers, and some retire and move off the farm.

"Since I started, I lost at least 10 farms. It makes it kind of difficult and hard, because you grow to become friends with the farmers and their families.

"You see them every day, so you have a personal relationship with them, and when people quit, it makes everything tough," he said. "You grow a really close bond with a lot of the farmers."

"There are trucks on the road every day, no matter what the weather conditions are, or if it is a holiday," Kline said.

Even with the decline in the industry, that does not mean that there isn't any fun involved.

"When I threw the hose into the porthole, there was one farmer who would throw it back out, and play little tricks on me," Kline said. "Some of them do little things like that."

A lot of smaller milk companies are selling out to larger hauling operations, according to Kline.

"The industry is really going down," he said. "Some of those guys work so hard, and they just can't get ahead."

With the number of dairy farmers going down, employment for milk truck drivers is also something that Kline thinks about.

"As far as security for our jobs ­ it's not going to be around forever," he said. "Dairies are going to end up quitting, and that'll be it."

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