Going out: when getting fat in dairy is no longer enough

The Andreas Farm Milk Parlor is dark and quiet on December 10, 2020, in Sugarcreek, Ohio. The Andreas sold their dairy herd of around 1,200 cows in September. (Photo by Rachel Wagoner)

SUGARCREEK, Ohio – The Andreas Farms milk parlor is quiet for the first time in decades. The last of the dairy cows left the farm on September 21.

“It’s always something on the back of your mind,” Dan Andreas said. “How to get out of the industry? You know it’s going to happen whether you’re alive for it or not.

The Andreas retired from the dairy industry this year after more than 50 years of milking cows on their farm in Tuscarawas County. The opportunity arose to sell their entire dairy herd at once this summer, and they seized it.

Dan Andreas and his son, Matt, together ran the dairy where they milked 1,200 cows and farmed hundreds of acres.

The decision was not easy, but it was ultimately the right one.

“My wife said to me, ‘God, you’ve come back,’” Matt said. “Even my parents said, ‘Your personality is back. Was I miserable doing it? May be. I guess I was. Negative prices year after year, and the human side. It’s hard.”

Good times, bad times

Things were looking up at the start of 2020, when Farm and Dairy published a cover story in January titled “Go Fat or Get Out: The Reality of Milking 1,200 Cows” about the Andreas. Matt said at the time that, for the first time in years, it looked like they would actually be profitable.

Then the pandemic struck. The market has collapsed. They never had to throw out the milk, but the prices have dropped. Try as he could, he couldn’t lower his cost of production. He was between 17 and 17 years old.

Speaking of what the future holds in January, Matt said Farm and Dairy that no matter what, they were always talking about not reducing their equity until the farm was worthless. They had a line, and once they hit it they knew they would need to make a big change.

The Andreas have been milking cows in the valley near Sugarcreek, Ohio since the 1950s, although their family has farmed the same land since 1881.

The operation grew considerably after Dan returned to the farm in 1978. At that time, they were processing 140 cows. They have grown to milk over 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 developed and became more efficient, the cost of production decreased and spread out. But large ships are more difficult to turn, especially when the seas get rough. The dairy industry has been in turmoil for five or six years.

Go Big or Go Out: The Reality of Milking 1,200 Cows

The weight

They have considered getting even bigger and investing in massive expansion, but it’s not as easy as building new barns. More animals means more manure, more manure management, and more labor. The terrain of the valley they are in and the price of land has made it difficult to expand, Dan said. It didn’t make enough financial sense.

Matt tested the waters, spoke to a cattle broker he knew. It turned out that there was a farm looking for cows. They have had other exit opportunities over the years, but the timing and conditions have never been right, Dan said, until now.

They haven’t hit the line. Their accountant said they could probably continue to stagnate for another 20 years, Matt said, if they were to continue milking cows and slowly disappear from the industry.

“Sometimes you say if you could get enough out of your investment, you’d be a fool to say no. And that’s what happened here, ”Dan said. “The conditions were good. The debt burden was just that we could go out and keep doing what we wanted to do and stay in farming. “

They set their price for the cows. The buyers came out and roamed the herd during the summer.

“We sat in the office waiting for them until 9pm, 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 of Columbus before returning to the farm. Matt graduated in business administration and history and coached college football for seven years before returning home.

Working off the farm may have helped them leap into the unknown. They didn’t exactly have a plan for what they would do after the cows left, but they knew they had options. They knew there was life outside the dairy.

You gonna make me feel lonely when you go

Cows started leaving the farm on September 17th. About fifteen semi-trailers showed up on the first day. In all, they send around 40 half loads of cows. It took five days for all the cows to leave.

It was difficult to see the cows leaving and walking through the empty and quiet barns. Dan has always been a cowboy. For him, the dairy cow is a magnificent work of art. But he knew they were going to a good home.

Most of the cows went to a new dairy in Minnesota. A few went to Iowa. There was only a 17-18% slaughter rate, Matt said. His father was happy with what this said about the quality of the herd they have developed over the years. The herd moving average in 1978 was around 14,000 pounds. By the end, they had hit a moving average of 29,000 pounds, Dan said.

The advances in production and efficiency, however, are bittersweet.

“We have become more and more efficient over time,” Dan said. “That’s what really pisses you off after awhile.” During my career, we have done things much better than my dad and his dad never did. But in the end, it didn’t seem like it was good enough that you could make any money and afford what you really wanted to do with this dairy.

They had about 20 full-time employees and a few part-time workers. Most of them have found new jobs. Matt kept five employees.

To continue

Jumping into the unknown is scary, but the Andreas managed to get out without a hitch.

“The important thing was to keep the farm intact,” said Matt. “It allows us to do it. That’s what got us through it. The cows were going to leave, but we will come out on the other side.

They know that is not everyone’s situation. They also know what the community looks like when a farmer sells his cows.

“It’s this old axiom that dairy farmers have in their communities: when you sell the cows, does that mean you are a failure? Dan said.

Dan and Matt don’t see it that way. They didn’t have to sell, although Dan thinks the writing is on the wall for other farmers. More and more dairy farmers will be faced with the question of what to do to stay afloat.

The Andreas have no advice in this regard. Everyone needs to do what’s right for their farm, whether it’s expanding, finding a niche, or selling. But Matt has a thought to share.

“You only have one life to live,” he said.

He didn’t want to spend it walking on water.

“I don’t want to do this. I want to do stuff with my kids, ”he said. “It’s more important to me than milking a dairy cow.”

After the cows left, they still had around 1,400 animals left between the heifers, calves and beef cattle. They are slowly selling purebred heifers.

They jumped straight into the crop after the cows left. Things are only slowing down. Now it’s time to seriously think about what to do next. Matt is in talks with dairies to rent the buildings. Then he and the handful of employees he has left can simply grow crops and make food for someone else’s animals.

They also considered raising beef in their barns or raising heifers. They are studying all the options and hope to have a clear path by spring.

What they do know is that things are a lot less stressful now than they were before. Matt said he could turn off his phone at night.

“He’s actually smiling again,” Dan said of his son. “He has time to visit his family. This is something I neglected to do during my tenure as a milkman. I didn’t want that to happen to him.

(Journalist Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 800-837-3419 or [email protected])

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