Valley dairy farmer culling his herd as prices slump

GRANTS PASS — After 42 years in the dairy business, Delmer Brink is calling it quits.

"This is the worst year I've ever seen," said Brink, who owns 70 acres along what some locals call "dairy row."

Depressed milk prices worldwide, plus an inability to compete with larger operations in the Willamette Valley and in other Western states, already have led two of Brink's neighbors to reduce their herds and refocus efforts on higher-value crops — Bob Crouse to the east and Cecil Waldron to the west.

A number of years ago, Brink adopted sustainable practices for his dairy, feeding cows natural products and not feeding them growth hormones that stimulate milk production.

"We also pastured our cows, and for all that, I received a premium (milk price)," Brink said, adding that he sells some milk to Rogue Creamery and some to Darigold.

But with the economy struggling, and fewer people buying premium cheese, Brink said, Rogue Creamery isn't buying as much of his milk right now, and Darigold is paying him about $1 a gallon for milk that costs him $1.50 a gallon to produce.

"I'm having to borrow money every month," Brink said. "My milk check is half what I received from February 2009. When dairy prices get cut in half, you can't make it."

Brink said he would sell off his herd if he could, but no one's buying cows now. He said his only option is to cull — meaning slaughter — them. "Normally, we cull about 30 percent a year when those cows stop giving milk," he explained. "That's just the way the dairy business works."

From 200 cows a few months ago, Brink now is down to about 170. He figures it will take him several more months to eliminate the herd.

"I'm not the only one — every dairy is in the same boat," he said.

Pete Kent, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Producers Commission, said the export market for U.S. dairy products had been good for the past three to four years, when New Zealand and Australia experienced a drought. Those countries traditionally have supplied Asian markets with dairy products.

U.S. dairies took up the slack. But in the past year, droughts in Australia and New Zealand ended, and the recession reduced the demand for dairy products worldwide, Kent said.

Over the past 20 years, Josephine County has seen its number of dairies drop from 29 in 1987 to seven in 2007, according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The number of dairy cows producing milk also has dropped, from 3,003 in 1987 to 974 in 2007.

However, during the same time period, the total number of farms in Josephine County has increased from 580 to 675, and the number of acres of farmland has increased from 31,249 in 1987 to 36,635 in 2007. The average farm size has decreased from 63 acres in 1987 to 56 acres in 2007.

Two years ago, during those dairy boom years, Cecil Waldron got an offer he couldn't refuse.

"We had been a certified organic dairy since 2001, but at the time, we were barely making it," Waldron said. "We sold (the cows) to another organic dairy. Some of our cows went to eastern Washington, and some went to another Oregon dairy."

Since then, he's planted less than 1 of his 75 acres of pastureland with corn, green beans, tomatoes, beets, zucchinis, squash, carrots, kale and radishes. Like Crouse, a few weeks ago he set up a self-serve farmstand on his property.

"I'm amazed at the positive response we've gotten here," Waldron said. "We're not making much money yet, but the applause is heartwarming. By noon, the corn is usually gone."

Waldron also kept a few heifers from his herd and plans to start milking them soon.

"I've got an artisan cheese maker who lives a quarter-mile from me," he said. "I've always wanted to direct-market my milk, and people are becoming more interested in going local."

His wife owns Rogue Valley Fudge Shop in downtown Grants Pass, and Waldron thinks his cows could provide butter for the candy. He'd also like to pasteurize some of the milk, bottle it and sell it. "Our idea someday is to have a destination farm where people can come out, enjoy the farm and buy their milk here," he said.

Meanwhile, Brink figures he'll sell the hay growing in his pastures to horse and llama owners.

"If I don't make any money at all, I'm further ahead than I am now," he said. "Today, I'm losing money."

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