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Dairy endures on Dill farm

Jack Dill isn’t ashamed to show his emotions. The dairyman gets choked up when talking about his late father, Alva, whose name still graces the family’s farm in Conway, Mo. He gets teary-eyed when talking about a favorite cow, “old No. 300,” that had to be put down when her health declined. He pours out his passions through poetry, expressing love and heartbreak, nostalgia and sentimentality through dozens of hand-penned verses.

So, it stands to reason that Jack was deeply troubled when his Dairy Farmers of America fieldman called in mid-April with the unwelcome news that the farm’s bi-weekly milk pickup would have to be discarded rather than go to the Hiland Dairy Foods plant as usual. Pandemic shutdowns of schools, restaurants and other food-service businesses had curtailed normal demand, and the industry was strug­gling to adjust.

“I hung up the phone and sat there with the most overwhelming feeling of de­spair,” Jack said. “I felt defeated. You put all of your work and energy into producing milk—which truly is a miracle food—and when something like this happens, it’s all for naught. The idea of our milk literally going down the drain really hurt.”

Turns out, his milk was still needed, but Jack said several of his fellow Ozarks area dairy farmers did have to dispose of their daily production for about five days. The same was true for dairy producers across the United States. The COVID-19 restrictions hit their industry harder and earlier than other agricultural commodities because dairy products—especially fluid milk—are highly perishable. Cows don’t shut down their milk supply, and it has to go somewhere.

The supply chain disruptions and ensuing price declines are particularly disheartening, Dill said, because 2020 had started out hope­ful for dairy farmers. After about four straight years of flat and low milk prices, they were trending upward at the end of 2019. USDA projections indicated this might be the year that the industry finally turned the corner.

“I was optimistic this was going to be a ‘catch-up’ year,” Jack said. “Then the bot­tom fell out. I try to look at the good, and at first, I thought this situation isn’t going to be near as bad as it seems. But it is so much worse than anyone ever dreamed. We’re going to see milk prices down as low as we saw in 2009 during the recession.”

Government “safety net” programs provide financial support to help offset these losses, but not all producers chose to enroll in them this year, based on the positive, pre-pandemic outlook for dairy. In fact, less than half the U.S. milk supply is cov­ered by the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) insurance-style program, offered by US­DA’s Farm Service Agency, or the Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP), available through approved crop insurance providers and administered through USDA’s Risk Manage­ment Agency. The new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program also earmarked funds for dairy producers, even if they were using these other risk-management tools.

“If you have insurance from the government, you’re going to be OK,” Jack said. “Dairies that don’t have it probably made the right move for the time, but it’s a dire situation for them now. If we didn’t have that insurance, we’d figure out a way to make it, but I’m telling you, we’d lose money.”

However bleak the economic outlook, Jack said the family’s commitment to cost-conscious practices will help the dairy survive the downturn. After all, the farm has endured the market’s cyclical challenges for more than a century. Jack’s grandfa­ther, Ores Dill, purchased his first 40 acres in 1915 and farmed with son Alva, who eventually took over the operation. Jack and his older brother, Jerry, joined their father in the business and formed Alva Dill and Sons partnership in 1979.

Today, the dairy supports five households with a milking herd of about 120 Holsteins and has grown to more than 1,000 acres. Alva died in 2016, but his wife, Betty, still lives on the farm and has a stake in the business. Jack and his wife, Patty, continue to farm with Jerry, and his wife, Sarah. The next gen­eration has joined the operation—Jack’s son, Jordan, and Jerry’s son, Jarrod.

“As a Depression-era child, Dad was really frugal, so we’ve always managed the business looking at costs first,” Jack said. “Our theory is, if you can make a profit in the worst times, you’ll stay in business through the good times, too. Following that philosophy, we’ve always been able to squeeze a living for our families from this farm.”

With this thrifty thinking, the Dills run an efficient, low-input operation. They continue to milk cows twice daily in an eight-stall, double-herringbone parlor built in 1955, and labor is di­vided among the four partnering dairymen. They maintain their older tractors and implements instead of buying new ones.

“The last time I bought a tractor to keep was my John Deere 4055 in 1998. It’s not the prettiest tractor in the world, but it’s dependable,” Jack said. “Last year, I asked Jerry if he thought we should trade in our old baler and get a new one. He said no, because he had just gone through and redid the whole thing. We stretch the use of everything as far as we can. We are a no-frills farm, for sure.”

Along with an MFA dairy ration, forages are the foundation of the feeding program, with about three-fourths of the farm’s acreage devoted to pasture and hay. In normal year, Jack said, the family puts up 1,100 to 1,300 big bales for their own cattle and typically has extra hay to sell.

“I always tell people we’re not really dairy farmers,” he said. “We’re forage farmers, and we market that forage through the cows.”

Putting more money into grain, genetics or facilities could mean improvements such as higher milk production and better butterfat, Jack admits. He knows Holsteins aren’t the best grazers, forage quality can fluctuate and uncomfort­able environmental conditions decrease the cows’ performance. But the Dills have found a formula that works, and they’re sticking to it.

“Our cows may not be as comfortable as a big dairy that puts fans on them in the summer and gives them shelter year-round, but we provide as much comfort as we can in a natural way,” Jack said. “It’s just how we’ve always operated. We probably should change. We are probably too slow to evolve. But we manage to support five families with only about 120 cows, so we must be doing something right.”

With Jarrod and Jordan now invested in the busi­ness, Jack said he’s confident the farm will continue to operate for at least one more generation. Other dairies may not have that assurance, he fears, espe­cially during the current pandemic-induced crisis.

“How many farms want to go on another gener­ation, but the financial opportunity won’t allow it?” Jack said. “That’s really sad because these people invest money and do the work, but yet the economic reward is not there. People outside of agriculture do not understand how much farmers sacrifice to bring food to their table.”

Jack is doing his part to raise awareness of such challenges and advance the industry beyond his family farm. He was elected to DFA’s Southeast Area council in 2018 and the Ozarks Division board for Midwest Dairy in 2019. He said serving in these leadership roles is giving him an opportunity to learn more about dairy’s legislative side and how regula­tions and marketing systems could be improved to better protect his fellow farmers and the food supply.

“The current situation we find ourselves in is not Hiland’s fault, and it’s not DFA’s fault. But we have to find solutions for the future,” Jack said. “That’s my new passion since I was elected to these boards. I work so hard to rep­resent my district, and I try to learn as much as I can about both sides of an argument. The right thing is not always easy. But it is always the right thing. I try to live my life that way.”

He’s also trying to learn how to enjoy life more, including spending quality time with Patty, whom he married in 2006, and their eight grandchildren. Jack will be 60 in August, and he’s getting nostalgic about the journey.

“I’m truly blessed with my family and this farm. It’s a gift to be able to work with nature and the land and what God has made—even if it comes with a lot of uncertainty and sac­rifice,” Jack said. “I have a lot of sayings, but one of my favorites is, ‘Life is a one-way trip down an interstate highway.’ I am at the end of the 59 mile-marker, and I can’t go back. All I can do is make the most of it from this point to the next.”

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