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Dairy Farms Continue To Close Their Doors
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Dairyman John McReynolds solemnly watched his Oktibbeha County neighbor's dairy operation go up for auction as what was once called the "Dairy Center of the South" lost another family business.
"What is sadder still is when you've got two sons, and you don't want them to stay on the farm," McReynolds said. "Agriculture used to be a way of life, but it never turned into a way to make a living."
Dr. Reuben Moore, dairy specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said 1998 appears on track to lose 40 to 50 Mississippi dairies, the annual trend of the last decade. That number is consistent with declines across the Southeast.
Even profitable farms are closing their doors.
"Every 10 years or so, farmers have to upgrade their equipment or facility and then spend the next several years paying off the improvements," Moore said.
Such was the case for Oktibbeha County native Warren Oakley and his son, William. Time had come to invest in improvements or sell out. In August, the Oakleys auctioned 324 head and most of their equipment. The elder Oakley inherited the farm from his parents. His grandparents began milking cows on the farm in 1913.
"Selling out was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make," he said. "Dairy farming is such a way of life that it'll take time to adjust."
Moore said as families choose to leave the business, dairy farms are getting larger, with more specialists helping to run the operations as a true business. They are increasing production and producing milk cheaper.
"As farms get larger, they will have the opportunity to control more of the market. The quantity and quality is high, so farmers can demand more money for their product," Moore said. "The increase in production and demand will protect consumers from significant price changes at the grocery."
Dr. Bill Herndon, agricultural economist at MSU, said dairy farmers are experiencing some of their best profitability in years with record high milk prices and low feed costs.
Mississippi's milk price was $17.45 per hundredweight in October and is expected to be about a dollar higher in November, Herndon said. The basic formula price (for milk used to make cheese) is $16.04 per hundredweight, which exceeded the previous record of $15.37 in September 1996.
All this means more cows will be going into production, and there will be a flood of milk beginning around February," Herndon said. "Unfortunately, prices always go down faster than they go up."