Archive for Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Dairymen’s dilemma

Change challenges county’s farmers

June 25, 2003

At Holton Dairy, where cows have been milked twice a day, every day, for the past 97 years, Kevin Holton takes the late shift.

He shows up at 6 a.m.

His brothers, Kerry and Terrence, have been on the job since 3 a.m.

Dairying is no easy life. But it's the life they choose.

For Kevin, who is 54, and Terrence, who is 45, this is the only job they've ever had, and they've been doing it for as long as they can remember. Kerry, who is 50, took other jobs his first few years out of high school before returning to the farm that's been in their family since the 1880s.

"The Holton boys," as neighbors refer to them, are hard workers. Their work days last from 15 to 18 hours. Then after a few hours for sleep they're at it again.

They don't complain about the work. But they would like it if they could make a dollar or two.

They sell it to Robert's Dairy for $12 for every hundred-pound weight.

Financially, it's a tight squeeze -- one they acknowledge can't go on forever.

"The difference between the $14 and the $12 is government payments and money -- borrowed money," Kevin said.

It's backward

It's hard to see their way out of the situation. Even when their expenses rise, the price they receive from the dairy company doesn't. Meanwhile, the price of milk on grocery shelves stays about the same.

People who say that taxpayers subsidize agricultural producers have it backward, Kerry said.

Prices dairymen are getting for their milk are about 45 percent less than what they should be, he added.

"Agriculture is subsidizing the taxpayer instead of the taxpayers subsidizing agriculture," Kerry said. "Because food costs per year keep going down as far as the ratio of disposable income. That's coming off somebody's end, and it's our end."

Whittling down the herd

The Holtons are not alone.

Kenny Jeannin, a Jarbalo dairy farmer, sold more than 300 of his best dairy cows at a June 4 auction. He hopes that by trimming his herd he'll be able to make ends meet.

It's a nationwide problem.

"The national average right now is you're losing a dollar a day per cow," Jeannin said. "So every time we walked out the door we lost money. I'm cutting back. I don't know if it will work. I've milked 500 cows and it wasn't working, so we'll see what 150 loses."

Lately, as they have for the Holtons, government payments and borrowed money have propped up Jeannin's dairy business.

"Hopefully that will work -- I don't know if it will or not," Jeannin continued. "And if it doesn't, I guess I'll be out of the dairy business. We'll know in the next year if it's going to work."

The plus side to having only 150 cows to milk, rather than 500, is that Jeannin has a little more time on his hands.

"I feel like I'm on vacation," Jeannin said.

In dairyman's lingo, that means rather than going to bed at midnight and getting up at 1:15 a.m. to start milking as he has done for at least the last 12 years, Jeannin now can sleep till 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning.

Like the Holtons, Jeannin's not complaining about the demanding hours a dairy requires. It's the only job he's ever had.

"I enjoy it," Jeannin said. "I really enjoy doing what we do, but on the back end, with the money, you'd like to be rewarded a little bit once in a while. It's just not happening."

Jeannin's wife, Wanda, works part time as a medical technologist at St. John Hospital in Leavenworth. It's her salary, he said, that pays for braces, eyeglasses and athletic fees for their children. The Jeannins have three daughters, none of whom, he expects, will want to run the dairy that was started in the 1930s by their late grandfather, James Jeannin.

"If I had three or four sons, I'd have a different theory on it, but I don't," Jeannin said. "I have a theory that if this doesn't work, I'll be driving a school bus or something."

And then, Jeannin, who is 51, worries about the job market.

"I guess there's something else out there," Jeannin said. "But at our age, we're not a real hot commodity."

The costs are high

Rick Abel, executive director of Farm Service Agency in Leavenworth County, said the number of area dairies has declined.

"We're down to 16 or 17 dairies left in the county," Abel said. "It's gone down quite a bit over the last 10 years."

Dairies are anything but cheap to run.

Abel cited operating expenses, maintaining a good herd, the cost of feed, as well as the labor to get the job done.

"It takes a lot of manpower and a lot of time," Abel said. "You've really got to be married to that job."

From what he hears, dairy farmers like what they do.

"For the most part they're all family operations," Abel said.

At the farm

Every day, each of the Holton's cows gives about 76 pounds of milk, or about nine gallons. In cooler weather, they make more milk. For instance, in April, the same cows were averaging 84 pounds per day, close to 10 gallons.

Kevin pointed to one of the 12 Holsteins being milked at one time on a morning shift.

"This cow here is milking 140 pounds a day," he said.

At the age of 9 years, that cow is their top producer.

So familiar are the Holtons with their livestock that they can identify the 254 cattle on sight. In fact, Kevin said he can recognize most of them just by looking at their rear portion.

The herd takes constant maintenance. And, to keep the herd going, it must be self-perpetuating.

About 10 percent of the cows are bred with the Holton's bull. The rest are artificially inseminated with purchased semen.

Three years ago, a delivery netted a bonus -- triplet calves. Kerry chuckled as he warned a visitor to dodge one of the grown triplets heading his way.

"She'll lick you to death if you get close to her," Kerry said. "The kids made pets of them."

Kevin, and his wife, Linda, who does the books for the farm, have been working to breed red holsteins. It's a slow process, he said.

A cow whose eartag reads "Blanca" is the offspring of a red and white sire and a black and white mother.

"She's a red carrier," Kevin said. "The next generation will have a red and white calf."

Tracing the family back

The Holtons feel a strong tie to the land originally purchased by their grandfather, Thomas Holton Sr., who in the 1880s emmigrated from Ireland. He was 16 when he arrived in the United States. Holton arrived in Leavenworth County in the late 1800s while working on the Northwestern Railroad. The family started the dairy in 1906. Tom Holton Jr., who was born and died in the house his father built, worked on the dairy all his life. It was only natural that his sons would follow in his footsteps.

The Holton boys live on an island.

Urban sprawl surrounds their 97-year-old dairy farm five miles southeast of Tonganoxie. From the top of the hill, just outside the dairy barn, new rooftop after new rooftop can be seen.

"We're landlocked," Kevin said.

It's not feasible to pay developers' prices for acreage to use as farm ground. And, increasingly, houses are going up in fields that previously could have been rented for haying or raising alfalfa to feed the livestock.

They realize their lives are increasingly different from that of their neighbors' who've moved in from cities.

Vacations are nonexistent. Days off are rare.

Terrence recently took a day off work to enroll his daughter, Lisa, at a college in Pittsburg State University.

"We left at 4:30 that morning and got back at 7 that night, so I guess it was a day off," Terrence said.

One thing about running a dairy, the brothers said, is they're assured of a job. But the salary is questionable.

"You have the job security, out there, but you don't have the pay security," Terrence said.

As if the long hours, low pay and urban sprawl weren't enough to contend with, there's one more obstacle, older than the farm itself -- weather. Last year's drought didn't do them any good.

"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature and prices," Terrence said. "And Mother Nature worked us over pretty good last summer."

His older brothers are a bit closer to retirement age than Terrence, who is 45. He's hoping the farm will hold out until he's ready for retirement. He shrugs.

"I have no way of knowing," Terrence said. "I'll try to make it to retirement age. Beyond that, it's really up in the air."

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