Surviving tough times in the dairy industry

A long day at the office has a different meaning for a dairy farmer.

"We start milking each day around 4:30 in the morning," Brandon farmer Doug Ode says. "Never a day off."

Farmers like Ode regularly work 80 weeks, especially during busy times. The problem is - the product they are producing does not fetch the same price it once did.

While most people unhappy with their workload or pay can usually look for a new job, or even a new career, it's not so easy for farmers. They're financially tied to their jobs to a degree many might find hard to imagine.

"It's not something you can get in and out, every year," Ode says. "It's good some years, so you're going to get in it - it's bad next year so you get out... No. You have to ride the highs and the lows."

It would be like having your home - your car - and hundreds of thousand of dollars in other equipment, all inseparable from your job.

So when things take a turn for the worst, a farmer can't just move on. And the agriculture industry has taken a turn for the worse.

"Back in 2008, the price per gallon of milk was right at $3.78," SDSU Extension Dairy Field Specialist Tracey Erickson says, "Today's average price, this last March, was at $2.90. So we've actually dropped almost a dollar a gallon in that average price."

That drop in price means farmers like Ode have to produce more milk just to remain even. And they are. Technology and better practices allow dairy farmers are more efficient than ever. However, that leads to even more milk being on the market. Basic supply-and-demand economics, Erickson explains, means more milk without an increase in demand means prices go down even more.

The dairy market has always been cyclical, with prices going up and down over time. However, Erickson says those cycles have been happening more quickly in recent years, giving producers less time to recover.

Dairy has been facing challenges in other areas as well. Consumers have more non-dairy beverage options than ever before. Erickson says labor shortages have also been plaguing the industry.

These problems quickly pile up on a job that, by its very nature, is built on uncertainty.

"Farming lives and dies by mother nature, and the prices we receive," Erickson says.

Back in March, a New York Times article brought to light the emotional toll these stresses takes on farmers, highlighting a spike in suicides among dairy farmers in the Northeast.

"It's not just dairy producers. Agriculture as a whole is suffering largely," Erickson says.

Fortunately, the dairy industry closer to home has not been hit as hard as other regions.

'We've seen a growth for demand in the industry, as far as processing plants, here in the Upper Midwest," Erickson says.

More plants are being built to process milk into cheese and other products. The price of those commodities tend to be more stable. Erickson says these plants also give producers more options to secure contracts when selling their milk.

Plus, experts say the current downturn won't last forever.

"We've seen some steady growth in cheese consumption, yogurt consumption, and other dairy consumption, across the U.S.," Erickson says. "And globally, too."

The latest outlook from the University of Wisconsin Dairy Extension predicts dairy prices will likely slowly improve in 2018.

Even with a sunnier outlook, there is still a push in the agriculture industry to raise awareness for mental health issues - though it can be a tricky task among a group of people who traditionally pride independence.

"It's a culture that often times that doesn't always reach out for help like they should," erickson says.

Sometimes, the best support can come from fellow farmers.

"Take the time to listen to them, interact with them. Sometimes they just need sit down and half a cup of coffee and talk," Erickson says. 'You might not even know the difference you've made."

And farmers have always looked after one another.

"Be positive," Ode says. "If nothing else, talk to someone, so you know what they're going through, so you don't feel like you're the only one that's bearing this whole burden. People like to listen."

While it's true you're average farmer can't just pick up and find a new job when things get tough - most wouldn't dream of it.

"Dairy producers, this is their life," Erickson says. "They're vested in it."

Because it's not just a job.

"It's just the rewards of seeing the labor you've put in - (a calf) becoming a mature cow, having a cow of her own, and being in the milking lineup and having a calf of her own," Ode says. "It just gives you a burning desire to keep going."