Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published March 18, 2013, 10:25 AM

Disappearing dairies

A small North Dakota dairy farm closes, and a once-common way of life is almost gone.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

BINFORD, N.D. — This is the story of four bachelor brothers from Binford, N.D., who had to quit the business they love.

It’s also the story of a way of life that’s nearly vanished from the Northern Plains.

The Rahlf brothers, all in their 60s, have operated a family farm south of Binford their entire lives.

They raise about 250 beef cattle, 300 chickens and a few hundred acres of grain. Until last year, they also operated a B dairy and milked about 60 cows, producing about 800 gallons of milk every two to three days.

Last summer, the Rahlfs say, the dairy organization with which they did business told them that it would no longer buy their B milk, which is used for cheese and other processed dairy products.

Farms that produce B milk are inspected regularly and held to high health standards. Farms that produce A milk are inspected more often and held to even higher standards. They often require more equipment, too.

Now, with no market for its milk, the Rahlf dairy is closed. Most of the 60 milk cows have been sold to other dairy operators.

The brothers hope to find a grant to finance the cost of a new barn. A new facility could allow them to produce A milk, for which they presumably would have a market.

But the Rahlfs are facing the hard truth that their dairying days may be over.

“It’s tough. Milking has always been part of our lives,” says Daniel Rahlf as he sits inside the small house he shares with his brothers David, Jerald and Tim. It’s the house in which they grew up, the house that once was home to their parents and seven siblings, too.

Daniel shrugs and adds, “It’s the way things are now. Things have changed so much. Farming has changed so much.”

At one time, small family farms that included dairy cows were common across much of the Northern Plains. The farms, relying heavily on family labor, milked 40 to 60 cows, raised some livestock and grew crops on a relatively small number of acres.

Griggs County, in which the Rahlfs live, once had an estimated three dozen family dairy farms.

Today, with the Rahlfs’ operation out of business, the county has none, according to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.

“No dairies. It’s kind of hard to believe,” Daniel says.

What’s happened in Griggs County is common across the Northern Plains. Small, diversified family farms generally have given way to much bigger operations that specialize in a handful of crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans.

Economies of scale encourage producers to increase the size of their operations, and bigger farm equipment allows them to do it, experts say.

Change in company policy

The Rahlfs say they were told last year that Associated Milk Producers Inc. would no longer accept their B milk. They say they think the decision reflected trucking costs.

AMPI operates in six Upper Midwest states.

Sarah Schmidt, AMPI communications director, tells Agweek that transporting B milk from dairy farms in eastern North Dakota to a B dairy plant in South Dakota was expensive.

North Dakota has two A dairy plants, one in Fargo and the other in Bismarck. It has no B dairy plants.

About a year ago, AMPI talked with some eastern North Dakota B milk producers about converting their operations to A milk, which could be transported a shorter distance to the A dairy plant in Fargo, on the North Dakota-Minnesota border, she says.

Some of the North Dakota B milk producers declined to switch to A milk and subsequently left the dairy business, she says.

Ninety-eight percent of AMPI milk is Grade A, Schmidt says.

The Fargo plant is operated by Cass-Clay Creamery. AMPI once owned the plant, but sold it last year to Kemps.

The Rahlfs say they dealt with AMPI.

Rachel Kyllo, a spokeswoman for Kemps, says the Fargo plant handles only A milk and that she has no information on the Rahlfs or their B milk.

Transportation costs

High transportation costs have caused a number of B dairy farms in eastern and northern North Dakota to close to recent years, says Wayne Carlson, director of the North Dakota Department of Agriculture’s livestock development division.

Of North Dakota’s 25 remaining B dairy farms, only a handful are in the eastern part of the state.

“As dairies get fewer and fewer, transportation costs mount up. There’s less milk out in the country. The trucks have to go further and longer,” Carlson says. “In some cases, they (the dairy companies) have subsidized transportation.”

At a certain point, dairy companies “just can’t subsidize that kind of transportation any more,” he says. “It becomes too expensive to go get their (B producers) milk.”

The state has 92 A dairies.

Even in Minnesota, the nation’s seventh-leading dairy state, B dairies are uncommon. Last year, the state had 3,832 A dairies and 389 B dairies, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

South Dakota ranked 20th in U.S. dairy production last year. North was Dakota 35th and Montana 36th, according to the annual survey by Progressive Dairyman magazine.

Different lifestyle

Transportation costs aren’t the only thing that’s hurt the dairy industry, Carlson says.

High feed costs cut into dairy profitability, while strong crop and beef cattle prices encourage diversified ag producers to drop dairy and concentrate on other parts of their operation, he says.

“But what’s hurt probably more than anything is the family labor. You’re there seven days a week. You’re committed to it. It’s hard to find people to milk,” Carlson says. “It’s hard to live that lifestyle.”

Jim Broten, a veteran Dazey, N.D., farmer and businessman, has known the Rahlf brothers — whom he calls “the boys” — almost all his life.

“Milking cows is a 24-7 job. You just don’t find many people who want to do it anymore,” he says.

The decline of small family dairies, and small family farms in general, is “part of the changing times we live in,” Broten says.

Family and farming

The Rahlfs say finding people to milk on their family farm was never a problem. This was a family, after all, with 12 children.

One of the 12 moved as an adult to Montana. The other 11 remain within 22 miles of Binford.

On a recent morning, 15 members of the Rahlf brothers’ extended family ate pancakes at the brothers’ kitchen table, their sister, Dorothy Everson of Hannaford, N.D., says proudly.

Everson and another sister, Kay Bear of Glenfield, N.D., come in to help the four bachelor brothers with cooking and cleaning.

Patty, Marilyn, Alice, Bill, Jim and Ron are the other siblings, Everson says.

The four brothers still on the home farm also are helped by their 20-year-old nephew, Tyler Keller.

“It’s nice. It’s really nice,” he says of working with his uncles.

He doesn’t know yet if he will make agriculture his permanent career.

“These costs (required to farm and ranch) are just crazy,” he says.

Friday is egg day

To the east of the Rahlf farmstead, half a mile away, is the long-defunct country schoolhouse that the four Rahlf brothers attended.

To the west of the farmstead, 1½ miles away, is the still-active church to which they belong.

To the north, seven miles away, is Binford, a farm and ranch town of about 190.

On Fridays, the Rahlf brothers go into town and sell their eggs.

“People like our eggs,” Daniel Rahlf says.

The egg money is more important than ever to the Rahlfs. When their dairy operation closed, the brothers lost about $100,000 in annual income, they say.

They haven’t given up hope of finding a grant that would allow them to restart as an A dairy farm. At least for now, however, that’s only a hope.

The brothers still have about 20 dairy cows, which must be milked every day. For a time, some of the milk was dumped in fields. Now, with spring calving under way, neighbors are using the milk to bottle-feed calves.

‘Hard to give up’

On this early March Day, Daniel Rahlf takes visitors to the dairy barn to see the animals in it.

The day is sunny and still, with temperatures pushing into the high 20s. A blizzard hit the region earlier in the week, but this day carries the promise of spring. If you enjoy caring for animals — and Daniel Rahlf clearly does — it’s a day to treasure.

He stands with visitors near the family dairy barn. A few calves are eating hay in a sunlit pen; one comes to nibble at Daniel’s clothes.

“Ah, it’s almost tame,” he says with a smile. He chuckles when the calf nibbles at the visitors’ clothes, too.

Even if the family dairy operation never reopens, the Rahlfs will continue to keep beef cattle and a few milk cows, to provide themselves with milk.

“But things won’t be the same without a commercial dairy,” Daniel says.

“We kind of hate to give this up,” he says. “But what are we going to do about it? It’s just the way farming is.”

Tags: