Got Cows?

Small dairies sell out as costs, competition rise

Shawn Cusack’s last cows arrived at their new home one day in July as he drove to Oklahoma City for a license to sell insurance.

Cusack Farms’ 80 milk cows are gone. It was too hard for the family farm to keep up with larger dairies.

“There’s fewer and fewer mom-and-pop groceries and more Wal-Marts. That’s just the way the world’s going,” Cusack said.

Before unloading the cows from a trailer in Kingfisher, Todd Mason questioned whether his own 600-cow herd could continue to compete.

“I’m 35-years-old, I’m married and got two little girls, and you tend to wonder if you’re doing the right thing because everyone keeps getting out,” he said.

Recent high milk prices at the farm level have turned around the fortunes for Oklahoma dairy farmers who faced a financial crunch after a combination of low prices and a crop-killing drought in 2006. The higher revenue, which could continue because farm prices are expected to stay high in 2007, is too little, too late for some. They are taking advantage of the jump in dairy prices to sell cows for profit and find a new living.Since 2002, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking licensed dairy herds, more than 100 Oklahoma dairies have shut down. The department recorded 350 licensed herds in 2006.

Today, about 300 dairy farms remain, said Noah Litherland, state dairy extension specialist and Oklahoma State University animal science assistant professor. The state loses dairies at about 8 percent per year — twice the national average of 4 percent, he said.

“It’s not really surprising,” Litherland said. “It just happens to be that in Oklahoma we have a lot of small dairies.”