SUGARCREEK, Ohio — The milk parlor at Andreas Farms is quiet for the first time in decades. The last of the milk cows left the farm, on Sept. 21.
“It’s always something in the back of your mind,” Dan Andreas said. “How do you exit the industry? You know it’s going to happen, whether you’re alive for it or not.”
The Andreases got out of the dairy business this year, after more than 50 years of milking cows on their farm in Tuscarawas County. An opportunity came up to sell their entire milking herd all at once this summer, and they took it.
Dan Andreas and his son, Matt, ran the dairy together where they milked 1,200 cows and farmed hundreds of acres.
The decision was not an easy one, but in the end it was the right one.
“My wife is like, ‘Good Lord, you’ve returned,’” Matt said. “Even my parents have said, ‘Your personality is back.’ Was I miserable doing it? Maybe. I guess I was. Negative prices year after year, and the people side of it. It’s hard.”
Good time, bad times
Things were looking up at the beginning of 2020, when Farm and Dairy ran a cover story in January titled, “Go big or go out: the reality of milking 1,200 cows” on the Andreases. Matt said at the time that, for the first time in years, it was looking like they’d actually be profitable.
Then the pandemic hit. The market crashed. They never had to dump milk, but prices plummeted. Try as he could, he couldn’t get his cost of production any lower. He was in the mid-to-low 17s.
When talking about what the future held in January, Matt told Farm and Dairy that no matter what, they always talked about not running down their equity until the farm was worthless. They had a line, and once they hit it, they knew they’d need to make a big change.
The Andreases have been milking cows in the valley, near Sugarcreek, Ohio, since the 1950s, though their family has farmed that same land since 1881.
The operation expanded massively after Dan returned to the farm in 1978. At that time, they were milking 140 cows. They grew to milk more than a thousand cows over the years. Dan and his brother, Bill, ran the dairy together until 2008, when Matt bought out Bill’s share of the farm.
Going big was their way of staying afloat and staying profitable. As they scaled up and became more efficient, the cost of production decreased and spread out. But bigger ships are harder to turn, especially when the seas get rough. The dairy industry has been stormy for the past five or six years.
They looked into going even bigger and investing in a massive expansion, but it’s not as simple as putting up new barns. More animals means more manure and more manure management and more labor. The terrain of the valley they’re in and the price of land made expanding difficult, Dan said. It didn’t make enough sense financially.
Matt put out some feelers, talked to a livestock broker he knew. Turned out there was a farm looking for cows. They’ve entertained other opportunities to exit over the years, but the time and the conditions were never right, Dan said, until now.
They didn’t hit the line. Their accountant said they could probably continue to tread water for 20 more years, Matt said, if they wanted to keep milking cows and slowly fade out of the industry.
“Sometimes you say, if you could get enough out of your investment, you’d be foolish to say no. And that’s what happened here,” Dan said. “The conditions were right. The debt load was right that we could exit and still do whatever we wanted to do and stay in agriculture.”
They set their price for the cows. The buyers came out and walked the herd over the summer.
“We sat in the office waiting for them ’til like 9 p.m., wondering,” Matt said. “The guys came back and said, ‘We want your cows.’”
Dan taught high school chemistry for 11 years at a school outside Columbus before returning to the farm. Matt has degrees in business administration and history and coached college football for seven years before coming back home.
Working outside the farm may have helped them make the leap into the unknown. They didn’t exactly have a plan for what they’d do next after cows left, but they knew they had options. They knew there was life outside the dairy.
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
The cows started leaving the farm, on Sept. 17. About 15 tractor trailers showed up that first day. In all, they send about 40 semi loads of cows out. It took five days for all the cows to leave.
It was hard to see the cows go and to walk the empty, quiet barns. Dan has always been a cow guy. To him, the dairy cow is a magnificent piece of art. But he knew they were going to a good home.
The bulk of the cows went to a new dairy in Minnesota. A few went to Iowa. There was only a cull rate of 17-18%, Matt said. His dad was pleased with what that said about the quality of the herd they developed over the years. The rolling herd average in 1978 was around 14,000 pounds. By the end, they’d reached 29,000 pound rolling herd average, Dan said.
The advancements in production and efficiency, though, are bittersweet.
“We became more and more efficient over time,” Dan said. “That’s what really eats at you after a while. Over my career we’ve done things much better than my father ever did and his father ever did. But it still, in the end, didn’t seem like it was good enough that you could make money and afford what you wanted to really do on that dairy.”
They had about 20 full time employees and a few part time workers. They found most of them new jobs. Matt kept five employees.
Jumping into the unknown is scary, but the Andreases were able to make a clean exit.
“The big thing was to keep the farm intact,” Matt said. “This let us do it. That’s what helped guide us through it. The cows were going to leave, but we’ll come out on the other side.”
They know that’s not everyone’s situation. They also know what it looks like to the community when a farmer sells his cows.
“It’s that old axiom that dairymen have in their communities: when you sell the cows, does that mean you’re a failure?” Dan said.
Dan and Matt don’t view it that way. They didn’t have to sell, although Dan thinks the writing is on the wall for other farmers. More dairymen are going to be facing the question of what to do to stay afloat.
The Andreases don’t have any advice in that regard. Everyone has to do what’s right for their farm, whether that’s expanding, finding a niche market or selling out. But Matt does have one thought to share.
“You only have one life to live,” he said.
He didn’t want to spend it treading water.
“I don’t want to do that. I want to do stuff with my kids,” he said. “That’s more important to me than milking a dairy cow.”
After the cows left, they still had about 1,400 animals left between heifers, calves and beef cattle. They’ve been selling bred heifers off slowly.
They jumped right into harvest after the cows left. Things are just now slowing down. Now, it’s time to think hard about what to do next. Matt is in talks with some dairies about renting out the buildings. Then he and the handful of employees he has left can just grow crops and make feed for someone else’s animals.
They’ve also considered running beef in their barns or raising heifers. They’re investigating all the options and hope to have a clear path forward by the spring.
What they do know is things now are much less stressful than they were before. Matt said he can turn his phone off at night.
“He’s actually smiling again,” Dan said, of his son. “He has time to visit with his family. That’s something I neglected to do over my tenure as a dairyman. I didn’t want that to happen to him.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)
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