Going out: when going big in dairy isn’t enough anymore

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dark milking parlor
The milk parlor at Andreas Farm sits dark and quiet on Dec. 10, 2020, in Sugarcreek, Ohio. The Andreases sold their milking herd of about 1,200 cows in September. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

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.

Go big or go out: the reality of milking 1,200 cows

The weight

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.

Carry on

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 rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for a well written article about the emotions of a farm family that had to enter into their decision to sell the cows. At the conclusion of your article I hurt deep down inside that we as a rich country can’t make the milking cows business a profitable endeavor for hard working farmers. I remember milking those big black and white Holsteins over 65 years ago and if it is something you have done you can relate to the Andreases.
    Dan and Matt, I wish you and your families success in whatever new endeavors you try as you move forward. We wish you a very Blessed and Merry Christmas and the best of everything in 2021.

    • I just recently retired from Dairy practice after 38 years of providing veterinary services for dairy farmers and their families. I am a second generation dairy Vet and have seen and lived the changes over 60 years. My respect for the famies living the life of a dairy farm family has no limits. I was blessed to be able to work with these marvelous hard working families and hope that my efforts helped them to make the hard decisions they faced every day. Sincerely. Gary Chapin D.V.M.

  2. Should do regenerative farming for raw milk. Pastuerized grain fed dairy is toxic, terrible for humans. Probably brings bad karma with it. But big dairy is so corrupt they are ruining farming and farmers live like this, no one should have 1200 cows. Terrible management and planning.

    • You sir have no concept of the world we live in. Organic/value added is an amazing idea but the reality is that not all people cant afford it. When most people go to the store for milk they want to buy the milk that cost $1.5 per gallon, not five dollars. They would rather spend there money on tech than groceries. ( who’s world is screwed up)
      These people(dairy men, farmers, ranchers)that you are scolding didnt go to work EVERYDAY they lived a business and sweated, cried, bleed, for every penny! They are masters of finance, business management, and herdsman.
      You should watch them and listen not judge
      You gave your opinion I gave mine
      Merry Christmas friend

  3. Not sure the bigger dairies are worth the cheaper cost of production. You are affecting the local rural economies
    Where the small farmers spend money and hire help,plus you spread out the risk of a disease transmission to the livestock or a bio terrorism attack. The effluent from the smaller dairies are spread over a greater area as well and major pollution risks are much smaller.

  4. Such a sad story. My father was a Miller for 30 years in Southern California my best memories in childhood were working on a dairy farm.

  5. Times have changed. I grew up on a 90 acre farm in Oldtown valley. My Dad never worked away from home and never had more then 20 milk cows but somehow he supported us. He later went to raising beef. I remember when Dad went from filling milk cans to installing a bulk tank. But he still milked each cow one at a time. Hope the best for the Andreas. They have a beautiful farm.

  6. It’s a hard decision. A 5th generation dairy farmer, I
    got out 20 years ago. I miss it sometimes, but in retrospect, it was the best decision for me mentally and financially, my marriage, and my children.
    There is life without cows.

  7. The future is moving away from animal products/exploitation. Please consider a route that doesn’t exploit animals for our pleasure.

  8. Sold out our dairy 1982. Keep farming for another 10 yrs. Government just doesn’t support things like they did 50 yrs ago… still farming today and losing money every year…

  9. I have been a barn builder for 22 years now, during this time I have watched 60 cow dairies dwindle away to 400 cow dairies, then to 750 cow dairies , now here in northern vt if you don’t have 1200-4000 milking Holstein cows your not a farmer.
    It’s a pretty sad sight.
    Some of my best memories are growing up on a 50 cow dairy where my father was the milker.
    Such a better time with higher moral standards.
    I will say over the last 20 years if the farmers are making a good price for their milk … we are all working and very busy, it just trickles down the financial ladder in our area, I prey to God that the dairy market stabilizes so we all do well .
    But I fear the big guys will be all that’s left in 10 years.
    I would gladly pay 8 dollars a gallon for milk just so the farmers All make their money because I live the good and bad with them as a barn builder.
    Keep U.S . MILK HERE, ABONDON THE GLOBAL MARKET and set us all back to the good old days.

  10. When an industry requires it’s participants to provide the collateral and security to bring about it’s existence, it’s a doomed industry. Dairy farmers generally do not know that 44 days of their milk production, is used in a revolving loan arrangement, by large banks, to secure processor loans. They ship one tank of milk and lose ‘ownership’ as it is now not in their possession and becomes ‘security’ for the processor, which of course, leads to many more processors and way too much milk and then, low prices. For the producer. The producer receives nothing in interest, for the nation’s current “Float” of some $3.5 Billion dollars worth of milk, loaned to the banks, for nothing, by dairy farmers. It’s called, “Accounts Receivable Financing”. The unpaid for milk is the security for the bank and in failure, the bank is first in line for the milk money and the farmers lose all 44 days of milk. That’s the real world of dairy, but fat chance you’ll ever see an agricultural or any other paper tell you the truth.

  11. I am compassionate to people losing their livelihood… however, all of the troubles of this industry are simply consequences of exploiting these poor animals and their newborn babies on such a large scale. I would be miserable if that were my livelihood too. Plant milk is healthier anyway and provides the same nutrients.

  12. Please look up the nutrient content of cows’ milk and almond milk. You might be surprised. Dairy products are among the best food people can eat for calcium, protein, growth factors, hypertension control, etc. (and the protein quality, not just quantity, is higher with real milk). Nature obviously was designed to provide newborns with the best possible food–milk. Try giving a newborn almond milk as a sole diet, it will be rather obvious which is the most nutritious “milk”. Dairy folks care for their animals. I am sure cattle don’t stand around pondering how exploited they are–they care about eating and being safe and comfortable–and domestic livestock get more of what they need with good human husbandry than they would in a wild state. What do you suppose the lifespan of cattle would be if returned to the wild? The infant mortality alone would be much greater due to predation and weather. If humans didn’t breed and care for them, we would have far fewer of them in the world–do you dislike them so much you wish there were far fewer? I am glad a Creator designed such a useful animal to provide for us and allow us the opportunity to be stewards over His creations.

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