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February 18, 2013

Area farmers: Cutting cattle

State sees drop in cattle numbers; local farmers aiming to hang on

National cattle numbers are at their lowest since 1952, according to the Purdue Extension. It’s a recent contraction that local Extension Educator Tamara Ogle says should position cattle farmers to expand in response to stronger demand.

At Friday’s regional cow/calf market workshop, Ogle told the assembled cow farmers that Indiana’s number of cows has dropped 20 percent in the last five years.

“This contraction presents kind of a unique set of circumstances because at some point in time our industry has to expand,” said Ogle.

A few factors pushed cattle farmers to abandon the business, she said. The biggest ones were high feed and forage prices — especially corn prices, for Indiana — and a three-year persistent drought in the Southern Plains area of the U.S.

“It wears on everyone,” Ogle said. “With the shortage of feed and the shortage of forage, that’s where we’ve seen a lot of people get out.”

A large section of the Plains is still under an exceptional drought, she pointed out, which may keep feed and forage prices high. That area is likely to be hit with its fourth consecutive summer of drought, Ogle added.

However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found some indication that an expansion in the cow market may already be starting. The number of heifers held back to expand herds grew 2 percent, she said.

“Whether we can sustain expansion depends on the drought,” Ogle qualified. “The faster we expand, the stronger prices are going to be.”

Local cow farmers who’ve remained in the business say skyrocketing feed prices have made the last few years challenging.

“We’ve stayed about the same in the last 15 to 20 years,” said Rick Seehase, 57, whose family owns about 150 cows on their Oak Ridge Farms locations in northern Cass County. “But there are a lot of numbers down. The expense is so great now.”

He’s known some small-scale cow farmers who’ve bowed out of the business because of the drought. “Guys that have 50 or 60 cows or more, they still have them,” he added.

Some farmers have quit because they don’t have younger family members to pass the business to.

“As long as [the number of cows] keeps going down it means the prices will stay higher in the supermarkets,” Seehase said. “They’re as high as they’ve ever been right now, as far as the cattle markets. That’s supply and demand, too.”

Small-scale farmer Jim Shaw, 66, thinks the market’s ready to reward those who stuck through the hard times.

He’s added three cows purchased when others were selling out. He now has 28.

Shaw, who farms on the eastern edge of Cass County south of Lewisburg, said he even knows one young farmer who’s just bought into the cow business.

“I guess we lose some and gain a few,” Shaw said. “All the statistics show that numbers are down everywhere, but my numbers are up.”

For Duane Deitrich, a cow farmer in the Clymers area, this year’s success will depend on the grass.

“I’m hoping the grass will come back,” said Deitrich. “It was grazed pretty short last fall. It’s hard to keep them from working at it, but we’ve been feeding them hay all summer, and hauling water.”

He’s got an extra hayfield planted now to cushion his 60-cow farm if dry weather returns. But if it does, “It’ll be the same scenario, you’ll start feeding your winter feed supply in the summer” — meaning in winter, a farmer has to get rid of a few cows or supplement the feed with additives like distiller’s grain or ground-up corn stalks.

“I can’t imagine two or three years of it. Don’t want to.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151.

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