Where have Alabama’s dairy farms gone? Amid rising costs, falling profits, only a few dozen remain
An old pump sits on a trailer outside the milking barn at the Gilmer Dairy Farm. The Gilmers bought it off another Lamar County dairy that closed in the past few years. They got the equipment for about $4,000. It would normally cost upwards of $6,500 used.
When their pump goes out — and it could be soon, because it’s old and starting to sound like it — they’ll have something on hand to replace it.
“You buy used stuff and make it work,” Will Gilmer said.
That’s the recipe the Gilmers have used to keep their farm alive for six decades. Gilmer spent much of the day Thursday on his tractor, injecting fertilizer into his corn fields. The equipment he used hadn’t been used in about 10 years before Thursday, and it was originally designed to spread granulated fertilizer. Liquid fertilizer is about $100 cheaper per ton, though, so with about $40 worth of parts, the Gilmers converted it in order to save money.
The Gilmers always try to find a way to make do with what they have.
“That’s why we’re still in business,” Will Gilmer’s father, David, said.
Dairy farms like the Gilmers’, near Vernon in rural Lamar County, are an increasingly rare sight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s last ag census, in 2012, showed 219 farms in Alabama with milk cows. Most of those farms — 140 of them — had fewer than 10 milk cows. Only 49 had more than 50 milk cows.
This year, according to data from the USDA, there are only 37 commercial dairy farms still producing milk in Alabama.
Before the workers at the Gilmer Dairy Farm milked their 208 cows Thursday afternoon, they counted the number of dairies that have closed in Lamar County in the past two decades. The count filled two hands. Then they counted the dairies left in Lamar and the counties around them. That count couldn’t fill one hand.
Alabama’s total of 37 dairy farms this year is down from 68 in 2007, and milk production last year was just under 106 million pounds, down from more than 195 million pounds seven years earlier. The state’s milk production has fallen every single year since at least 2007.
Dairy farmers are giving up the dream because dairy farming is a difficult, time-consuming job, and the financial strains have become, for many, too much to bear. As more and more leave the industry, it gets even harder for those who stay to make a living.
The family business
David Gilmer gets up before 3 a.m. each day and, with a few dogs who are occasionally helpful, starts getting cows ready to go into the milking barn. By 3:30, they’re lining up in two rows of 10 for the mechanical milkers. The cows’ udders are sanitized, wiped down and hooked up to a machine that milks them and pumps the milk into tanks, where it’s cooled to around 37 degrees.
It takes a few hours to milk 200 or more cows, and by then it’s finally time for breakfast. Between breakfast and lunch, the work varies by the day. Some days Will Gilmer is on the tractor working on the crops — corn, wheat, grasses they use as feed — and some days they’re working on equipment maintenance. After lunch, a little after 1 p.m., it’s time for the second milking of the day.
The cows are milked twice a day, every single day. For a dairy farmer, there’s little opportunity for a day off, whether it’s for a vacation or because of a mechanical breakdown. There are a few other guys who work on the farm, but Will and David Gilmer are working almost every day.
“The typical size of a dairy in Alabama is such that you can’t just be a manager of it,” Will Gilmer said. “If you own and operate it, you’re going to be an operator of it and you’re also going to be doing a lot of labor.”
That demand for labor is one reason dairy farming tends not to appeal to younger farmers. Will Gilmer, 36, isn’t just an anomaly because he’s a dairy farmer in Alabama. He’s a young dairy farmer. He came back to work the farm after he graduated from Mississippi State University, where there were a good number of agriculture students, few of whom planned on going into dairy.
Dairy is in his blood, though, and the farm has always been home. David Gilmer also came home from Mississippi State and took over the farm from his father, Will’s grandfather, who started raising dairy cows between Sulligent and Vernon in the early 1950s. The family had been on the land another generation before, raising cotton, livestock and other crops.
“We’ve had cows milked on our farm for the last 60-something years,” Will Gilmer said.
Will Gilmer plans to keep the family farm alive, but it hasn’t been easy. About six years ago, they were pretty lucky at a time when many farmers weren’t.
Supply and demand
After milk prices hit all-time highs in 2007 and near that in 2008, the recession hit the dairy industry hard. When consumers, faced with less spending money, stopped going to restaurants, demand for cheese fell. Cheese accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. milk production and about 60 percent of that is used in restaurants, according to a 2009 Reuters report. So wholesale milk prices plummeted by about 50 percent in less than a year.
The drop in demand cost some farms $200 per cow each month, according to Reuters.
The Gilmer Dairy Farm survived, through a bit of luck. They were in pretty good financial shape to begin with, and they had just taken out a loan with the goal of upgrading their facilities. That plan changed when the price of milk crashed. The loan helped them cover the cost of feed and other needs and kept them afloat until the price recovered.
“Luckily we didn’t have to borrow so much that we weren’t in a hole we would never be able to get out of,” Will Gilmer said.
Many weren’t that lucky.
Max Runge, an extension associate at Auburn University who specializes in agricultural economics, said the crash in the price of milk — which was paired with rising feed costs — put a lot of dairy farms out of business.
“It’s sort of rebounded as far as milk production is concerned,” Runge said, “but we haven’t had as many dairy producers come back.”
Economies of scale
Alabama dairy producers face a few economic hurdles that put them at a disadvantage, too. There are only two milk processors in the state — one in Birmingham and one in Dothan — who take the raw milk from the farm and prepare it for the supermarket shelf.
At the Gilmer Dairy Farm, a truck picks up milk every other day and hauls it to a processor in Kosciusko, Miss. The Gilmers are part of a cooperative that handles the logistics of getting the milk to market, but they’re still responsible for paying to have it hauled off.
The Gilmers are in the co-op because it guarantees they’ll always have a place to sell their milk. A lot of Alabama farmers are independent and sell their milk directly to a processor. Will Gilmer is worried the shrinking number of dairies in Alabama will lead those processors to focus more on dairy-rich states like Wisconsin, when there aren’t enough Alabama dairies to make it worth running the trucks.
“At some point in time those milk plants may decide it’s not worth their effort running a truck, picking up all these little dairies across the state and say, well, y’all go find a new home for your milk,” he said.
The Gilmers used to sell their milk to a processor in Montgomery before it closed down.
“We’re losing the processers because there’s not enough dairy to process,” Runge said.
The falling number of farms also affects each farm’s ability to find parts and people to fix them. If something major goes wrong with the equipment, the strict milking schedule doesn’t leave much room for error. The Gilmers use a father-and-son outfit out of Brooksville, Miss., for major repairs. If needed, they can be there in a few hours to fix the equipment, but they also service dairy farms as far away as Randolph County, Alabama, and the father and son aren’t young and aren’t getting younger.
With fewer and fewer dairies, those who specialize in things that support the dairy industry don’t have much demand anymore.
Why not Alabama?
As the cows come in for their afternoon milking, the smell in the Gilmers’ milking barn isn’t as intense as you might think. It builds as the cows move through, 20 at a time, but it doesn’t get unbearable. That’s partly by design, a tradeoff made with the unforgiving Alabama summer in mind.
When they were planning the barn, David Gilmer toured larger dairies in Kansas to get ideas. Alabama’s weather is a bit different than the Great Plains, though, so the barn isn’t built to withstand cold winters. In the handful of days each winter when the temperature doesn’t break the freezing mark, there can be some problems with pipes and equipment and cold. That’s OK, because the barn is built for the several months a year the temperature induces a steady stream of sweat.
It’s more open at the top, with bigger windows, to allow the breeze to come through. It’s still hot, but when you stand under the fan in the middle of the barn, it’s bearable for hours at a time.
The heat doesn’t just affect the workers, though. It affects the cows, and it puts Alabama at a disadvantage when it comes to dairy production. The cows don’t produce as much milk in the summer because of the temperature.
“It takes a certain amount of energy for them to keep cool,” Will Gilmer said. “If they’re expending energy trying to keep cool, that’s less energy to have to actually make milk. Their milk production goes down in the summertime, appetite goes down.”
Because of that, the Gilmers plan for more of their cows to give birth in the summers, so the two-month dry-off period before calving comes during what would be an already slow period.
The heat is one reason the South doesn’t produce as much milk as cooler parts of the country. Most of the states in the South are what are called milk deficit states, meaning they bring in more milk than they produce. The USDA said Alabama had around 8,000 milk cows in 2014, compared to 16,000 in South Carolina, 13,000 in Mississippi , 15,000 in Louisiana and just 7,000 in Arkansas. Some southern states are doing better — Georgia had 81,000 and Florida had 123,000 — but the region as a whole pales in comparison to the Midwest and the West. Wisconsin alone had 1.2 million, about 300,000 more than the total of every state with a college in the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama isn’t without its advantages for dairy farmers. It’s easy to grow crops to cut down on feed costs. The Gilmers grow corn, grasses and other grains that all go straight to the cows. It also rains often, which is an advantage Alabama has over California, the state with the most dairy cows, which is mired in a years-long drought. The drought there is forcing far more dairies out of business each year than Alabama has total, according to The Los Angeles Times, and with no end in sight, farmers are looking to move.
Despite those advantages, Alabama’s dairies continue to disappear. Part of it is the hard work.
“Some of the children don’t want to do that anymore,” Runge said. “They grew up in this hard work and they’re looking for other opportunities, being able to travel and do things. Dairy is very confining.”
In Lamar County, Will Gilmer isn’t planning on going anywhere.
“As long as there are people willing to drink milk in Alabama,” he said, “I’m sure there’s a few of us willing to get up every morning and make sure there are cows to be milked here.”