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Getting through a year of challenges

Area dairy farmers have faced a variety of hurdles since 2020

File photo by Mike Lamb Cows at the Lingen Dairy in Lyon County have a feed in this file photo. High feed prices and hot, dry conditions for feed crops and hay are among the challenges facing area dairy farmers currently. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic also brought challenges ranging from finding labor to navigating new technology.

MARSHALL — The past year was an unpredictable one for many industries, as the COVID-19 pandemic affected everything from food supplies to transportation and labor. Dairy farmers in southwest Minnesota have also had to deal with challenges, although they may not have been hit as hard as dairies in other parts of the country.

Back in April 2020, factors like very low milk prices were leading dairy farmers in Wisconsin to dump milk.

“Minnesota kind of evaded that,” said Brittany Moorse. Moorse’s family operates a dairy farm in the Minneota area, and she is also the southwest region coordinator for the Minnesota Dairy Initiative.

Adam Popowski, who has a dairy herd near Ivanhoe, said that had held true for his farm, too.

“We haven’t had to dump milk,” he said, and recent demand has been decent.

June is National Dairy Month, which celebrates dairy farmers around the country. On Monday, Moorse and Popowski spoke with the Independent about their experiences in dairy farming over the past year.

The impact of the pandemic on the dairy industry could especially be seen early on in 2020. Around last April, milk “was flying out of the stores,” and producers weren’t able to transport more milk fast enough to restock, Moorse said. However, supplies did start to come back as the year went on. There was also a demand for dairy products like shredded cheese because people were cooking more at home, she said.

Over the past year, the COVID pandemic also had an impact on labor at dairy farms in southwest Minnesota, Moorse said. If a farmer or farm worker got sick, it could leave dairies short-handed for important tasks like feeding and milking cows.

A good number of area dairies, including the Moorse and Popowski dairies, are family-run. Popowski said he, his wife Abby and their family work on the farm without hired help.

“It helps that we get to see the cows every day,” and check on their health, he said. But it means you can’t take days off.

COVID case numbers have been going down in Minnesota, but Moorse said some Minnesota dairies are now struggling to find and retain good employees, just like other industries are. Staffing was a challenge dairies were facing even before the pandemic, she said.

“COVID made it that much harder,” Moorse said.

Social distancing meant there was a learning curve for using remote meeting technology like Zoom, even for farmers, Moorse said.

Milk prices have risen since the spring of 2020. Moorse said recent prices were around $17 per hundredweight. However, the past few weeks’ extreme heat and dry weather conditions also pose other challenges for the hay and crops dairy farmers use to feed their herds. Prices have also been high for feed like corn and soybean meal, Moorse said.

“So far, the hay crop has been doing good,” Popowski said. But while his first cutting of hay this year was good quality, it looks like the next cutting will have less tonnage. “We keep praying for rain.”

“The rest of the summer is pretty unknown, if it stays hot and dry,” Moorse said. The tonnage and quality of hay might not be enough for area farmers. If that’s the case, dairies might turn to alternative forage for their herds. Moorse said her family has been using rye and sorghum as additional forage sources.

“A lot of farmers in this area utilize beet pulp,” especially in areas close to sugar beet producers, she said.

Moorse and Popowski said planning for their farms’ futures in the long run will mean carefully considering factors like dairy size and input costs, and whether to hire workers.

“I think it’s a really demanding lifestyle, but it’s really rewarding too,” Popowski said of dairy farming. “It takes a lot of faith.”

But there have been positive events for area dairy farmers over the past year, as well. Earlier this month, the Popowskis’ farm was among 96 dairies recognized by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for taking excellent care of their herds. The dairy farms had achieved an average somatic cell count of under 100,000.

Somatic cells “are like white blood cells,” that can be found in milk, Popowski said. The cells are naturally occurring and aren’t a food safety concern, but having fewer of them in a dairy’s milk is a sign that the cows are healthy and the milk is good quality.

Moorse said the COVID pandemic posed challenges for her work with the MDI. She said she’s looking forward to being able to organize in-person events for area dairy farmers. A “dairy producers’ night out” event will be held in Marshall at the Brau Brothers Brewery on Thursday evening.

“This is the my first opportunity to have an event like this,” she said.

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