TRAVERSE CITY — Morning was going to be unusually quiet today at the Gallagher Centennial Farm outside Traverse City.
For the first time in 105 years, the Gallaghers weren’t going to be milking cows at the farmstead on North Long Lake Road. Owners Doug and Joanne Gallagher are getting out of the milking business, turning their full attention to raising locally grown beef and crops due in part to a difficult business environment for smaller dairy farms.
“There are all these big farms, you know, and they are milking a thousand to 1,200 (cows),” said Doug Gallagher. “You can’t compete because they’ve got everything streamlined at the factory farm.”
Other reasons for the shift away from dairy farming include Doug’s advancing age — he’s 71 — and last summer’s parching drought.
“It was the first time I had to buy hay,” Doug Gallagher said. “I don’t remember my dad buying it either. We didn’t have enough for both herds — dairy and beef.”
The last milking was scheduled for Tuesday at about 3:30 p.m. The farm's 59 dairy cows were to be sold at auction today.
Small dairy farms across the country are facing challenges similar to the Gallaghers. While the Michigan dairy farming industry remains strong overall, many feel small operations are at an increasing disadvantage compared to their larger counterparts.
“The trend is fewer small dairy farms,” said Kirk Kardashian, author of "Milk Money: Cash, Cows, and the Death of the American Dairy Farm." “They are being replaced by larger dairy farms that achieve an economy of scale, allowing them to either break even or turn a small profit when milk prices are low.
“It’s a long-running trend since even the '80s.”
John Gallagher founded the Gallagher Centennial Farm 105 years ago. Son Cecil Gallagher continued the tradition, making Cecil's son Doug the third generation. Doug plans to transfer farm operations to son Anthony with a focus on raising steer and crops. The farm also has 15 acres of cherries, along with hay and oats.
“We’ve never been without (milking)," Doug Gallagher said. “I remember when I was a kid, all dad could get rid of was maybe two 10-gallon cans. The rest you had to separate and it always went to, like, Nelson's or Maxbauer's or Progressive. He hauled it in the trunk of his car … leaving the skim that went to the pigs, and took the cream to town.”
Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Virginia, said times are tough for all dairy farmers, big and small, due in part to the drought.
“For any livestock-producing operation — cattle, pigs, poultry — high feed costs are a deal breaker,” said Galen.
Galen and Kardashian both said the Farm Bill pending in Congress is critical to the future of dairy farmers. They hope legislation will allow dairy farmers to insure against poor economic conditions caused by low milk prices and high feed costs. Kardashian said the nation’s milk pricing system also needs reforming.
For the Gallaghers, life will continue on the farm. They see a vibrant farming future ahead and look forward to selling their crops and meat locally at their farm store and at area farmers markets. They just won't be milking cows.
“The calves we raise are born here,” Doug Gallagher said. “We don’t use any antibiotics or growth hormones, and it seems to be what a lot of people want.”