Archive for Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Shouts and Murmurs

Dairy copes with changing times

April 7, 2004

For the Holton brothers, it's not exactly the end of an era.

But for the industrious men who have spent their lives working round the clock at their family's dairy, and for a county that used to bill itself as rural, Thursday's event is a continuing signal of the urbanization of southern Leavenworth County.

No, the dairy farm isn't closing. No, the land isn't going to new rooftops. But yes, the men are vastly downsizing their dairy herd.

Next Thursday at the 98-year-old dairy that was originally started on land homesteaded by their great-uncle, an auction will be held.

At the end of the day the herd at Holton Brothers' Dairy will be 250 cows lighter.

There was nothing light about what prompted the brothers, Kevin Holton, Kerry Holton and Terrence Holton, to sell their cows.

"It was the hardest decision we ever made," said Kevin, who is 55, like his younger brothers has lived and worked on the farm five miles southeast of Tonganoxie all his life. "But now that it's been made we just want to get it over with and finished."

The problem was, the Holtons get paid $14 for every hundred pounds of milk they sell to their distributor -- but it also costs the Holtons about $14 to produce 100 pounds of milk.

This would hurt any business.

"You can operate at a deficit for a while but sooner or later you've got to operate in the black," Kevin said.

The plan is to reduce the herd to 40 milking cows, and to keep the calves. By the end of the year, the calves will also be milked and the dairy herd will number about 130.

The herd's cutback translates to a cutback in staff. Basically, only the brothers will remain to keep up the work.

It's anybody's guess as to whether the plan will succeed.

"They're making big promises for a big milk price so we will see if it comes through," Kevin said.

If it does, that would be great, he said.

"If it doesn't, we'll just have to reassess the situation about a year from now," Kevin said. "It just may turn out to be where it's no longer profitable to operate a dairy."

The Holtons aren't spendthrifts -- so cutting back on general expenses around the farm wasn't an option.

"We're pretty frugal," Kevin said. "You don't see any new tractors, new pickups, you don't see any new paint here at all really -- there never has been."

Selling off the herd will mean fewer animals to feed, fewer animals to milk.

They hope it will help.

"You just kind of run out of options," Kevin said. "So we have to do this. It's not a total shutdown or anything like that, but we try not to use up that last option -- to put it off as long as we can."

Amid the rolling hills of southern Leavenworth County, the Holtons daily see evidence of demographic changes. New rooftops. Shiny cars whizzing along the blacktop to the east. Clearly, their dairy, which the Holton brothers are doing all they can do to keep it going, is a vestige from the past.

At this point, one can only hope, as do they, that their farm will make it to its century mark.

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