Center Focus Column

Difficult Decisions on the Farm

It’s that time of year when kids yell “Trick or Treat” and teenagers flock to the latest Halloween-frightful movie that’s out. Green-eyed monsters, rickety skeletons and frightening scarecrows line our porches and front yards, as we go on Ghost Walks and delight in finding ways to scare each other.

If you’re involved in the dairy industry right now, though, you don’t need to create reasons to be scared. The marketing environment right now is frightening enough. A growing milk supply in the Northeast coupled with a declining demand for Class I or bottled fluid milk has put our region into a tailspin.

Cooperatives are struggling to balance a burgeoning milk supply, while processors are working to find new markets for the milk now displaced by the declining Class I market. Caught in the middle of it all are dairy farm families who are dealing with declining milk prices, disappearing premiums and, in some cases, a loss of a milk market.

These are uncertain times we are in, and there are no easy solutions. Through my role at the center, I have talked to a few of the families facing these tough decisions, and they’re in a scary place right now uncertain of how to move forward in the best way possible for their family and their farm.

Unfortunately, I can’t give them the answers they want to hear. New dairy processing plants are expected to come online within the next 24 to 36 months, and they do point to an optimistic future for dairy in the region. However, that doesn’t help the farms without a milk market right now. And there just aren’t markets out there able to take on new members or more milk.

These farms are at a crossroads and need to make decisions quickly to shore up the future for both their farm and their family. Making difficult decisions is never easy, but with careful thought and the proper tools, those decisions may lead your operation to a better place.

Evaluate Your Options

When faced with a difficult decision, the easiest route is to do nothing and hope things resolve themselves. Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens, and with the milk markets the way they are right now, it is unlikely to happen in this situation. All dairy farm businesses should have an exit strategy and a contingency plan. If you were faced with a potential loss of market, what would you consider as your options.

Could you sell your cows and begin raising heifers for a neighboring farm? What about raising dairy beef? What about other livestock enterprises? Many dairy farms are diversifying into poultry or swine. Would that be an option for you? If you did stay in the dairy business, what about value-added or another marketing niche? What other markets are available in your area?

Recently, Progressive Dairyman published an article on three dairy farm families that recently exited the business. It demonstrated how there was life after dairy farming. Each of the three farms found new opportunities and new careers following their herd dispersals. Although nobody wants to see dairy farms exit the business, the reality is many people have found that life after dairy farming can be as equally rewarding and fulfilling as when they were milking cows.

Leverage Your Resources

Most people choose dairy farming as a profession because they like working by themselves and making decisions independently. But, sometimes bringing others into the conversation can help you think of something that you may never have considered on your own. These outside advisors can help you think through a contingency plan. Bringing outside consultants, key advisors and others into your decision-making process may uncover an option that you didn’t know about before you talked to them.

The Center for Dairy Excellence offers grants for dairy farm families to work with outside consultants. Our Dairy Decisions Consultant Program provides $3,500 for a farm to work with an independent consultant to evaluate their current situation and options for future farm viability. This program may be invaluable in helping you determine which route is the best way to go. To learn more about this grant opportunity or other programs available through the center, contact our Program and Operations Manager Melissa Anderson at 717-346-0849 or by e-mail at

Take Care of Yourself

At the end of the day, what is most important is your own personal health and well-being, as well as the well-being and health of your family. It should be no surprise to anyone that dairy farming is a highly stressful occupation. Having a difficult and incredibly scary decision like the ones that some farms are facing now can be enough to push someone beyond their breaking point.

Remember to take care of yourself. Find ways to relieve stress, and stay positive. If you do feel overwhelmed, find people you can lean on for guidance and support, whether it’s a loved one, friend, or your pastor. Don’t ever try to carry the burden on your own. They can help you keep moving forward, and that is half the battle.

As always, the Center for Dairy Excellence is here to be a resource for you and your dairy business. If you want help in finding additional resources, please give us a call at 717-346-0849 or visit our website at