Greg Braaksma chose dairy farming because it was a way of life. His family has farmed in the Gallatin Valley for four generations, raising dairy cows for three.
He grew up getting up before school to milk the cows every third morning. Every kid in his class at Manhattan Christian was from a farming family in those days, he said.
Now, there’s no longer a dairy on every corner in the Churchill and Amsterdam area, as several multigenerational dairies are being sold by farmers going out of business or retiring.
Braaksma and his co-owners, his dad, Doug Braaksma, uncle Rick Braaksma and cousin Darren Braaksma, sold off their dairy cows in August. His veterinarian knew a guy looking for someone to feed his beef cattle, and now they are feeding Charolais Red and Black Angus, while growing alfalfa, barley and a little corn.
The decision to switch to beef cattle was unanimous among the family members, Greg Braaksma said. Low prices made the past three and half years incredibly stressful and they wanted to avoid getting deep into debt, having operated debt-free for many years. Milk prices were at an all-time high about five years ago, according to Dairy Reporter, but prices fell and haven’t risen high again.
Deciding to sell off their dairy cows was hard, Braaksma said. He feels connected to the industry, having milked the same cows from the same lineage as his grandfather. Five years ago, he would have said you could bury him in the back lot on his property. Now, he doesn’t feel that way. He can’t feel that way, with the future so uncertain.
“If the feed thing works out, we’ve got a lot more work to do,” he said.
A report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in November showed a rise in bankruptcies for all kinds of farms across the ninth district, which includes Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Montana hasn’t seen the same number of farms file for bankruptcy as other states, with only one reported as of June last year.
While farm bankruptcies aren’t showing up as much in Montana, consolidations are. The number of farm closures happening in the state may have something to do with how many older farmers are able to retire, said Melanie Hall, commissioner of the Montana Division of Banking and Financial Institutions.
Consolidations happen far more frequently in Montana than they used to. From 2000 to mid-2018, the number of dairy cows in Montana dropped from about 13,000 to 11,500, while the number of dairies decreased by more than half in the same time period, from about 140 to 60 farms.
That’s certainly true in the Gallatin Valley, where local dairy farmer Doug Kamerman could name three or four dairies in the area that recently closed. Kamerman’s family has maintained their dairy in Churchill for more than 50 years, and he still owns it with his dad, uncle and brother, Nelson Kamerman.
If dairies are failing, it isn’t for lack of trying. Kamerman said he knows farmers who haven’t missed a day of work in 10 to 15 years. Braaksma remembers his grandpa puking in the gutter in the barn rather than taking a day off.
“When you work seven days a week for years and years, you don’t like to fail,” Braaksma said.
Advances in technology and milk production have made it so having a bigger herd is necessary, Braaksma said.
“It’s like get big or get out,” he said.
The problem is, so much milk is being produced that the market is oversupplied, especially in big dairying states like Idaho. High supply and lower demand means lower prices in these states, and Montana farmers and processors like Darigold and Meadow Gold can’t charge much more for its milk or else it would see an influx of milk coming from out of state.
Braaksma said he isn’t sure why changes in the farming industry are emotional for so many. So much of what’s happening is out of his control, though.
Advances in technology have led to oversupply as well as price regulation, among other things. Montana’s one of only a few states with a quota system, a unique aspect of its dairy sector. For example, the Kamermans can produce 50,000 pounds of milk per day before they start receiving less money for their milk.
It’s meant to help control oversupply within the state, said Chad Lee, Milk Control Bureau chief. But Doug Kamerman said he thinks it’s kept Montana from growing, somewhat.
Some of those outside factors are changing. The Montana Milk Control Bureau restructured the pricing system for different types of milk, aiming to help Montana’s dairy industry compete with other states and put millions of dollars back into the pockets of farmers.
Farmers should see those pricing changes go fully into effect in the next few months, Lee said.
And then there’s the recent trend in dairy milk alternatives, like almond or coconut milk. People consume far less cow’s milk than they used to. The USDA estimated the average person drinks 18 gallons of milk a year. In the 1970s, it was more like 30 gallons a year.
Despite the industry’s struggles, Braaksma emphasized he wasn’t part of some “sob story.” He said he is blessed to have a nice, warm house, food on the table and assets. He was able to attend private school growing up, and he went to college at Montana State University.
It’s just that it will be hard for Braaksma to be able to pass on everything that he and his grandparents have worked for to his children. He has three, and his oldest daughter, 12, is already interested in farming, he said. She knows how to drive a pickup, and they taught her how to bale hay last summer.
“It’s a wonderful way to live,” Braaksma said.
Nelson Kamerman said the same for his family. He and his family grew up pitching in around the farm. Now, his kids help after school and on weekends, feeding calves and milking. His daughter has names for many of the cows, he said.
Despite industry woes, Doug Kamerman said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the future. Margins are tight right now, but he and Nelson both have a keen business sense, having majored in it in college, and he said he feels like his family is putting out a quality product.
Braaksma has hope, too. He just took in 96 more beef cows from someone else.
He talked about his mother, wife and aunt crying as the truckers came to load up the cows. The 460 milking cows and 50 dry cows went to a farmer in Iowa. The 400 heifers and the 150 calves went to someone in Utah. He has a video of the whole thing.
In an ideal world, he would have wanted to take a couple years to learn the beef business, but he has a model right now, and he said he’s waiting to see how it works.
“I think farmers are always next-year people,” Braaksma said.