Farm Horizons, May 2006

'Losing a generation of farms'

By Roz Kohls

Minnesota will have fewer and bigger dairy farms in the future, predicted State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City. He isn’t sure that’s the best way, he added.

Urdahl wants a future for small and medium sized dairy farms too, he said.

“We’ve lost 400,000 cows (in Minnesota) since 1970,” Urdahl said.

Also, the average dairy farmer is 55 to 60 years old. The dairy industry wants to attract younger people. “We are losing a generation of farms,” he said.

Urdahl wants Minnesotans to realize how important the dairy industry is to the state. “It’s worth saving,” said Urdahl, who represents all of Meeker County and the six townships in western Wright County.

One of the most important challenges will be to change people’s attitudes about the dairy industry, he said.

Not counting the dairy farmers themselves, approximately 50,000 jobs are in businesses that process dairy products, such as First District Association in Litchfield, he said.

In Meeker County, for example, there are 80 dairy farms while in 1960 there were 1,400 dairy farms. Urdahl expects that in the future each dairy farm will have thousands of cows, compared to the 75 cows the average farm has now, said.

In Swift County there is a 5,000-cow dairy farm near Benson, he said.

Dairy farms are not only getting bigger, but dairy farmers are getting more productive. Although the total milk production has dropped because there are about 40,000 fewer dairy farms since 1970, production per cow has gone up.

Stearns County has the most dairy farms in the state, he said.

The typical dairy farmer is trying to expand his operation so he can compete. “He’s thinking about what he can do to modernize,” Urdahl said.

The typical dairy farmer is wondering if he should go to a “parlor” operation. In a parlor operation, the cows come to the farmer, instead of the farmer going to the cows in a tie stall barn, he said.

Milking cows is a physically demanding job. In a parlor, on the other hand, the farmer stands and reaches up to milk.

“It’s becoming more and more popular,” Urdahl said.

There’s also a trend to retrofit older barns with parlors, he said.

One of the biggest challenge for dairy farmers today is getting access to capital if farmers decide to expand or upgrade their operations.

Urdahl has a tax credit bill, HF2879, that will give dairy farmers a credit on their income tax up to $50,000 on equipment they purchase to expand or improve their operations. It is currently in the State Senate’s tax bill. Urdahl hopes it will be in the house tax bill too.

“It’s hard to find a legislator against it,” he said.

Most every group supports it. All ag groups are on board with it, Urdahl said. However, there always is the possibility of last-minute changes.

“I hope at the end of the day we have a tax bill,” Urdahl said.

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