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Douglas County feedlot coordinator says dairy farms have been steadily declining

Years and years ago in Douglas County, there were hundreds of dairy farms, but these days the number is in the low to mid 30s, said Mark Koep, Douglas County feedlot coordinator.

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This herd of cattle, Black Angus and Angus-cross heifers, are owned by Bill and Kelly Anderson from Farwell.
Celeste Edenloff / Alexandria Echo Press
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The decline of dairy farms in Douglas County has been going on for decades.

In fact, Mark Koep, Douglas County feedlot coordinator, said the number of dairy farms across the state have been steadily declining for decades.

Years and years ago in Douglas County, there were hundreds of dairy farms, but these days the number is in the low to mid 30s, said Koep.

Getting out by choice

And there isn’t one specific reason, but many. Koep said if he had to choose some of the bigger reasons, he would probably say, in no particular order, family dynamics/health, economics and lack of help.

He also said that if farmers sell their dairy herd for whatever the reason may be, they most likely won’t bring dairy cattle back. Unlike the farm crisis of the 1980s, Koep said many farmers these days in Douglas County don’t have that much debt or are choosing to not go further in debt with their dairy operation. He said they would rather sell off their dairy cows and replace them with beef cattle or just farm the land.

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Mark Koep
Mark Koep

“Many make the switch from dairy to beef because they don’t want to go further into debt with the dairy,” he said. “More are getting out by choice, instead. They sell earlier rather than too late.”

He said raising beef cattle versus dairy cows requires less time commitment and inputs. Farmers could probably manage 50 dairy cows by themselves, but with beef cattle, they could probably manage more than 100 by themselves. Dairy farms are just a lot more work, he said.

More efficiencies

Interestingly, although the number of dairy cattle have gone down, the amount of milk being produced has not changed much. The reason, Koep said, is because farmers have gotten a lot more efficient in their operations. And the use of technology has helped.

Much of it has to do with how the farmers are feeding their herd – how much, what they are feeding, different components and more.

“It is about all the right feed ration,” said Koep. “Now, everything is tested and every cow or group of cows can have their own total mix ration of what is being fed to them.”

A few decades ago, if a cow was producing 50 pounds of milk a day, it was considered good. But now, because of the efficiencies, Koep said cows can produce anywhere from 80 to 100 pounds of milk per day.

When it comes to milking their herd, Koep said there are a couple of farmers in Douglas County who have gone to robotic milking or are thinking of going to robotic milking. He said many don’t because it is a huge financial investment.

Although there has been a steady decline in the number of dairy farms in Douglas County, Koep said he couldn’t ever imagine a day when there wouldn’t be any dairy farms in this area. He said that farmers here are invested and that there are a couple of big operations – or big for this area.

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Stearns County is home to the majority of dairy farms in the state and home to much larger operations, he said. The larger dairy farms in operation in Douglas County are about 500 head of cattle each.

Buy from a farmer

Douglas County is also home to smaller beef cow/calf operations. He doesn’t envision the beef cow/calf industry changing much in Douglas County and that there will always be beef cattle farms.

He also noted that the vast majority of farmers, whether they have beef cattle or a dairy herd, also farm crop land. There are also a few turkey farms in the area and there is one “large” hog operation with about 1,200 head, which Koep said is pretty standard in the hog industry. He added there are a few goats here and there, some chickens and a couple of sheep farmers in the area.

Koep shared some advice for the general public when it comes to local farmers in the area.

“I would encourage people to reach out to their local farmers to ask about their farming operation and also purchase meat, eggs, etc. from them,” he said. “People want to know where their food comes from and that it was raised a certain way. Farmers love to visit and they love to tell their story. Most are happy to tell you how they raise their animals and the level of care they receive.”

Koep said if people don’t know any farmers but want to purchase meat locally, to check with the local butcher shop as many farmers have standing dates at their local butcher shop so the people working there would probably know who raises what animals and who participates in direct sales.

“Anything that serves to bridge the gap between producer and consumer is essential as more and more people, especially the younger generation, are removed from the farm,” said Koep.

Celeste Edenloff is the special projects lead and a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. She has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in 2016 to once again report on the community she calls home.
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