CHIPPEWA FALLS — Brad Peck acknowledges it is challenging being a dairy farmer, between rising production costs and prices that rarely cover expenses.
“It’s extremely tough,” Peck, 48, said. “It’s a world market; farmers in the world are suffering. We don’t get paid more, but machinery and fertilizer keeps going up in price.”
Peck and his 62-year-old brother, Bruce, took over the family dairy farm three decades ago.
At the time, they had 75 dairy cows. Twenty years ago, they purchased an automated milking parlor and added another 100 cows. They are looking at ways to increase profitability.
“We are thinking about adding more,” he said, explaining that additional cows would spread out the costs. “We have to add a building.”
On Oct. 1, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made comments in Madison that small dairy farms may perish as the industry moves toward a factory farm model.
“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said at the World Dairy Expo.
Peck wasn’t surprised by the agriculture secretary’s comments.
“It’s the way the world has been going,” Peck said.
For now, the Pecks are in for the long haul.
“Bruce plans to retire in the next 10 years, and (his son) Jeff will come into the partnership,” Peck said. “We’ll try to build on, and make enough to keep going.”
The Peck farm is about 1,100 acres, and they saw some challenges this year.
“We had a lot of winter kill for alfalfa, so we had to use more corn to make feed,” he said.
To break even on milk, Peck figures they need to receive $18 per 100 pounds of milk.
“In the last month, we’ve gotten that,” he said. “The last four years, we’ve been below that.”
Along with the three Peck family members working fulltime, they also have two part-time assistants, milking the cows twice daily. Peck said finding labor to work with them has been an issue.
Larry Clark, 63, is among the Chippewa Valley farmers who have opted to leave the industry. A year ago, Clark had 250 cows on his farm in the town of Eagle Point, north of Chippewa Falls. After selling another 75 last week, he now has just 10 young steers, which he will eventually sell for slaughter. He is entirely out of dairy farming.
“We’ve been gradually getting rid of them,” Clark said. “We went into retirement. It was hard the first couple of days. But it wasn’t a difficult decision. Our younger help had left, and we would have had to make a big investment to stay in. Emotionally, it was a little hard, because you’ve been doing it your whole life, and then you’re done.”
Clark’s home is four miles from the farm property. He is renting all the farm land to a neighbor. He has no regrets.
“We’re leaving on our terms,” he said. “We’re solvent.”
Jerry Clark, Chippewa County UW-Extension agriculture agent and Larry Clark’s cousin, also wasn’t surprised by Perdue’s comments.
“In Chippewa County, we are down to 216 dairy farms,” Jerry Clark said. “Twenty years ago, we had over 1,000.”
Wisconsin lost 691 farms in 2018, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service reports. Through Oct. 1, the state has lost another 634 dairy farms, leaving just 7,476 total milk cow herds.
A state report shows that as recently as 2014, there were 329 dairy farms in the county, so about a third have vanished in the past five years, Jerry Clark added.
Eau Claire County has 87 dairy herds today, and Dunn County has 105, he added.
“We’ve seen it, where smaller farms are lost, if there isn’t anyone to take it over,” Jerry Clark said. “It is expensive to get into agriculture, if it wasn’t handed down to you.”
Smaller dairy farms are more at risk than the larger dairy operations, he added.
“You often see larger farms having more leverage in lending,” Jerry Clark said.
Larger farms also can spread out their costs because they have more cows.
“You really have to watch the efficiency and production costs, but you can’t make it too low,” Jerry Clark said.
George Polzin, 63, milks 80 cows in the town of Goetz near Cadott. He jokingly says he is a dinosaur in the dairy industry, and the ice age is coming. He was shocked when he heard Perdue’s comments.
“I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding,” Polzin said. “Even if you think that, you should be smart enough not to say that in Wisconsin.”
Polzin said he is frustrated that President Trump “hasn’t done anything for us.”
“My son said, ‘This is what this administration thinks about small family farms. They are just writing us off,’” Polzin said.
Polzin said he’s been able to stay afloat because his farm is diversified; he sells corn and hay as well as milking cows.
“I’d hate to rely on milk as my sole source of income,” he said.
While Polzin was shocked by Perdue’s comments, he acknowledges the challenges dairy farmers are facing.
“The last few years have been as tight as we’ve seen in my career,” he said. “If things continue the way they are, the small family farm is really going to struggle.”
Danielle Endvick, communications director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, released a statement criticizing the Trump administration’s “failed agriculture policies.”
“Their conscious dismissal of the pain small- and medium-sized farms are going through, combined with Trump’s erratic trade war with China, has Wisconsin farmers fighting harder for their livelihoods than ever before — and they have to be,” Endvick wrote.
Endvick described small farmers as “the backbone of Wisconsin’s economy.”