Number of farms down, number of cattle up in St. Lawrence County
Sunday, June 22, 2014 - 8:32 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

The number of farms in St. Lawrence County continues to decrease, but the number of cattle has jumped nearly 7 percent since 2007, according to farmers and agriculture officials.

“What you’re seeing is small farms going out of business. You might have a farmer whose family members don’t want a career in farming and a neighboring farm buys that farm. That’s a trend that’s been happening for some time,” said St. Lawrence County Farm Bureau Jon Greenwood. The Potsdam farmer operates one of the larger dairy operations in St. Lawrence County

Brent Buchanan, agriculture issue leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, confirms the continuation of what has been a long-term trend of smaller-scale farms being sold off or just shutting down, often making land available to larger operators who want to expand.

“There is continued consolidation where smaller farms are sold and rolled into other farm acreage.” The buyer might want to “take a hedgerow out and make a larger field,” for instance, which would be more efficient to work.

David Fisher, also a local Farm Bureau officer whose family runs Mapleview Dairy on the Jones Road in Madrid, says the declining number of farms has been “a nationwide trend – in Canada, too.”

The USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture indicates cattle inventories are up overall in the county. There were 74,470 cattle and calves in St. Lawrence County in 2012, compared with 69,612 in 2007.

“Beef cattle have been priced very well for the last year or so,” Fisher said, since the recovery after a drought in the West and high feed prices forced many ranchers to cull their herds deeper than they might have otherwise, which resulted in lower beef prices for a while. But the higher price for beef now has not led dairy operations like Mapleview to sacrifice good cows to make some cash on beef.

“The milk price has been very good this year, but it wasn’t always,” Fisher said.

“In ’08 and ’09 it was historically low. There is almost a world market price for milk now. So much is exported now. The Chinese are buying a lot, so that’s helping everybody” who produces milk.

Medium-size operations – not the largest or the smallest – are those most likely to shut down. Greenwood says that “in some places, the number of small farms is actually increasing. It’s people ‘returning to the land,’ or starting hobby farms.”

It’s the medium-sized dairy farms where “family members provide most of the labor” but for one reason or another they just can’t do it anymore that are most likely to throw in the towel, he said.

There’s a similar situation with the number of cattle.

Greenwood says the size of his herd is fairly stable, “but a lot of farms are adding cows. The larger farms are adding while the smaller farms are exiting. Some existing farms are getting more feed out of their existing acreage and are able to support more cows.”

Milk production has been going up fairly steadily in the county, according to the census.

The market value of milk from cows, the largest sector of agricultural output in the county by far, was $132 million in 2012 compared with $113 million in the 2007 census.

Total market value of sales, including livestock, was $187 million in 2012, $140 million in 2007, and just shy of $100 million in 2002.

“The increase in milk production is largely due to the increase in the price per hundredweight,” which is the main inspiration for dairies to produce more, Buchanan said.

“And there’s been a nice steady increase in production per cow,” with improved technology such as sensors and software to track production and make adjustments in feed.

“We were in line for some progress there because we were a bit behind” more intensive dairy producing regions.

“But the type of agriculture has changed a little bit, where people are looking for row-crop land” Buchanan said, sometimes planting grain on former pasture land.

“Since 2007 grain and corn prices have been very strong, and that probably means more people will plant grain and grow crops,” Fisher said.

Buchanan agrees.

“With higher fuel prices and the spike in grains, people are planting more row crops like corn and soy,” he said. And with the higher milk price now, dairies are adding cows and planting more to feed them.

While it has long been seen that the number of small farms is shrinking and some larger farms continue to expand, Buchanan sees another trend the other way.

“There is increase in smaller producers of organic and non-organic row crops,” he said. “And organic grain is very expensive, so organic dairies are looking to grow their own.”

Buchanan said he has seen “some shift” to beef production which is able to “make more use of pasture land” that might be less suitable for row crops.

“We’ve also seen sheep and lamb numbers up. The prices have been very high lately.”

The increase in the milk price is also driving some “keen competition” for prime land.

Buchanan said he has seen where some prime land in Wisconsin dairy country recently went for $19,000 an acre in “considerable sized tracts.”

Prices have gone up quite a bit in the last couple of decades in the North Country too – not at those Wisconsin prices, but $2,500 an acre here is not unusual. “And a fair bit of land is still going for $1200 to $1400 an acre. But when I first got here 19 years ago, if you paid $400 an acre, you were paying a lot.”

For their part, the Fishers try to grow their own feed – soybeans, corn, alfalfa and grass. Fisher said there was a fair amount of winter kill in his alfalfa fields, but not very bad. He has made most his first cut of hay into haylage rather than bales. He said it was “a pretty average crop – nothing exceptional.”

He said after some typical spring delays due to cold and wet weather his corn has been planted “in the last couple three weeks, thanks to a dedicated group of workers who worked a lot of hours and got a lot of stuff caught up.”

As for his start on the season, Greenwood said recently “it’s been a tough spring -- late, cold, wet. We’re finishing corn planting, late.”

He said that “the grass has begun to head out,” so it was ready for the first cut of hay. But he said “we need sun and wind” to dry things out for mowing. Time is critical, he said, because the grasses were about at their peak of nutritional value which would just decline from then on.

The USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture counted 1,303 farms operating in the county, compared with 1,330 farms in the census before that in 2007. That is also down from the 2002 census, when there were 1,451 farms in the county.

Total acreage in the 2012 census, at 356,909 acres, is up from the 2007 census, at 347,246 acres, but down from the total in 2002, 403,364 acres.

And the size of the average farm in the county stood at 274 acres in 2012, up from 261 acres in 2007, but down from the 278-acre average in 2002.