BROWN COUNTY, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota farmers are producing more milk.
According to the USDA, South Dakota’s milk production in July was up nearly eight percent compared to the same time last year.
That’s the highest rate of growth among 23 other states.
However, a smaller dairy farmer is in a tough position.
Darin Zoelner’s family has been milking cows for well over a century.
Today, he operates a small dairy herd with his brother near Groton in Brown County.
But keeping the dairy cows is getting tougher and tougher.
“Dairy is always something that we had in our family and something that we always wanted our kids to be able to have a part of, so it’s going to be a challenge,” Zoelner said.
Zoelner says dairies have disappeared in his area.
“Brown County used to be a very dairy-rich county. When I was in 4H growing up, we’d have over 100 animals at the Brown County Fair, and right now there’s only two dairies in the entire Brown County, so just location makes it tough for anybody to even want to come up here anymore because they’d be coming so far and there’s no other milk in this area to be picked up,” Zoelner said.
Marv Post is the chair of South Dakota Dairy Producers.
He says the number of dairy farms in the state has dwindled over time.
Back in the 80s, Post says there were over 2,000 South Dakota dairies.
He estimates there are about 70 now.
Post has about 70 dairy cows at his farm near Volga.
“The smaller dairies like mine continue to go out because it’s a way of life that not a lot of people want to do, and so the scale gets bigger so there is scheduled days off,” Post said.
Zoelner has been selling his cows, but it’s not because he doesn’t want the lifestyle.
He says it’s not economical for him.
Zoelner markets his milk through AMPI, a Minnesota-based farmer-owned co-op that produces cheese, butter, and powdered products according to its website.
“Just the prices of everything have gone up so much…like the input costs have gone up substantially, hauling has gone up a lot, and the milk price has stayed the same or has gone down,” Zoelner said.
AMPI says hauling rates are set by private contractors and the coop is no longer subsidizing hauling fees.
That means it’s now up to individual farmers.
Zoelner hasn’t had any luck selling to a different processor.
“We try other companies, the ones in the area, and we’re either too far away from them or they just won’t pick us up,” Zoelner said.
Post says one of the challenges dairies are facing right now is a lack of processing in the area.
“We’ve got overproduction of milk. Our processing is full, and that creates problems as far as getting milk processed, leaving the farm and getting it processed,” Post said.
While the number of dairy farms is dwindling in the state, the number of cows has increased.
According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were an estimated 158,000 dairy cows in South Dakota in 1980.
By 2004, that number had dipped to about 79,000.
In January of this year, there were 187,000 dairy cows in the state.
That’s up over the 1980 figure.
“Larger operations is what’s happening and that’s the trend and that’s going to be the trend. I don’t see that changing at all and that’s the same is all production ag. Everything is larger. Fewer numbers, larger operations,” Post said.
The Zoelners have other ways of making a living, including crops, custom haying, and trucking.
“It’s just challenging that you have to go through other means to try to make money so you can milk. At the end of the day, sometimes enough is enough,” Zoelner said.
If you ask him what’s kept him hanging on this long, he’ll tell you it’s the love of the animals.
In early August Zoelner was milking about 50 cows, but he’s down to about 20.
He says they plan on keeping about 8 for their kids to show for 4-H.