Cattle Farmers Stampede To Beef

Changing Economic Realities Accelerate Transition From Dairy Operations

Posted: February 23, 2013

Cattle farmer Kenny Lohr of Mayland looks over some of the 80 Holstein heifers he’s selling. “I just got tired of it” after 50 years in the dairy industry, he says — but he’s considering getting into the beef cattle business. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
Mayland farmer Kenny Lohr inspects some of the dairy cattle he’s planning to sell. The Shenandoah Valley is becoming prime turf for beef cattle raising, a field Lohr is considering after 50 years as a dairyman.
A breeding bull mingles with a group of Holstein heifers at Kenny Lohr’s farm in Mayland on Tuesday.
HARRISONBURG — Eighty dairy cows still wander the pastures on Kenny Lohr’s Broadway-area farm, but not for much longer.

A 50-year veteran of the dairy industry, Lohr has finally decided to bow out, citing a general fatigue with the business and his heir’s lack of desire to take it over.

“I just got tired of it,” he said. “My son was helping me but he didn’t want to take it over, so we just decided to get out.”

His story is hauntingly similar to many dairy producers’ narratives in the central Valley.

The number of dairies in the area and across Virginia is steadily falling, but that’s nothing new. It’s been happening for more than 60 years.

What’s more novel is the next part of Lohr’s story. He’s considering transitioning into the beef cattle business, explaining that’s often a more stable and profitable enterprise than milking.

Plus, he already has the pasture.

Local dairy producers who go out of business often start raising a combination of poultry and crops. They’ve also been making the transition to beef cattle farming gradually for years, a trend that’s amplified since the dairy recession of 2009, according to Jason Carter, executive secretary of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association.

“We certainly see the struggles the dairy industry has gone through the last several years,” Carter said. “We’re …  glad those folks are able to stay in cattle production.”

While the drought that hit the Midwest and Great Plains hard last year has made beef cattle farming less feasible in those regions, it’s strengthened conditions for southeastern farmers hoping to get into the beef industry.

“The Shenandoah Valley …  and on down is certainly the growth area for the beef cattle industry in the United States in coming years,” Carter said.

Layton Yancey, who has 60 breeding cows, about 30 calves and two bulls on his Keezletown farm, made the move from dairy almost five years ago.

He still remembers the date: April 1, 2008, a year before what he calls “the crash” of dairy farming.

Dairy Decline

In 2009, a dairy recession occurred when milk prices collapsed due to decreasing demand in a weak economy combined with elevated feed costs.

“In two months’ time, the price almost fell in half,” said Mount Crawford dairyman Frank Will recently while showing off his farm’s newest expansion, Mt. Crawford Creamery, scheduled to open next month. “It’s been tough ever since. We haven’t been able to keep up. …  The prices just fluctuated up and down like a yo-yo ever since.”

The Wills built an on-site milk-processing facility because they “either had to do something different or quit,” Will said.

About a third of all dairies in Virginia have been concentrated in Rockingham County for years, according to Carter.

But the state has lost about 15 percent of its dairy farms since 2005, according to Eric Paulson, executive director of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association.

Virginia Agriculture Census data shows that Rockingham County contained about 235 dairy farms in 2007; as of December, there were 221 dairy Grade “A” permit holders, according to local extension agent John Welsh. That’s a nearly 6 percent decrease in just five years.

“That’s been a downward slide for quite a while,” Welsh said.

Various factors have added to the problem: lack of profitability, farmers’ desire to retire with no way to earn cash but to sell their farms, and less of an interest in dairy farming on the part of the next generation.

“Input costs have just gone up so much now that it’s just hard to see the daylight,” said Dale Gardner, who sold his Bridgewater dairy farm in 2000.

The Transition

Raising beef cattle requires less startup costs, is less labor-intensive and much less risky than modern dairy farming, according to local growers.

Numbers released by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in early February showed the state’s cattle and calf inventory had jumped from 1.49 million head on Jan. 1 of last year to 1.61 million on the same date this year.

During that time, though, Virginia’s milk cow inventory dropped by 2 percent, while beef cattle numbers were 3 percent higher.

The increase in beef cattle in the commonwealth comes at a time when the national inventory is the lowest since 1952, mostly due to the longstanding drought in the Midwest and Great Plains.

J.D. Alexander, immediate past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said it could take at least three years to get the national beef industry back to what’s considered normal.

Census data shows an increase from 806 beef cattle farms in Rockingham County in 2002 to 836 in 2007. In the entire state, that number fell by more than 1,100.

Virginia’s herd did well last year because the state’s farmers weren’t affected by drought as much as many other areas in the nation.

“Virginia for the most part had a pretty good year for hay and for pasture,” said Elaine Lidholm with the state ag department.

If farmers can’t graze cattle, they’re forced to sell them off. Last year, many state producers actually bought herds from other areas of the country.

Lynn Koontz, who raises beef cattle and poultry in the Dayton area, gained some cows from Kansas for that reason.

Koontz used to have dairy cattle, until February 2007, when he sold off his dairy cows and just stuck with the beef.

“This dairy thing just kept getting so unpredictable,” he said. “You work hard for six months to get ahead, you might say, and then the next nine months, you give it all back and then some.

“I watched the markets and when I thought they peaked that winter, I pulled the plug. I haven’t looked back one day since.”

Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or csipos@dnronline.com



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