Marvin Meyer of Liberty,Ill. comes from a long line of dairy farmers. But as he watched the number of dairy farms decline over several decades due to increasing costs and tougher regulations, he knew something had to give.
“My family milked until 1998. We were milking about 400 cows at that time,” Meyer says. “But it came to a point where we had to decide to get bigger or get out. So we sold our dairy herd and changed avenues.”
Today, Meyer makes a living exporting short bred and springer heifers (cows that are close to giving birth) to other countries, including Mexico, Russia and Turkey. He and his sons Ryan and Ty manage a herd that fluctuates between 500 and 1,000 heifers at a time.
“Last summer, we sent an order for 1,300 head to Russia by boat,” Meyer says. “Farmers in other countries don’t have as many cattle as we have in the United States, and they buy from us partly because of genetics. Also, as other countries are progressing and seeing their economies improve, people are developing a taste for cheese.”
Meyer’s clients buy his cows, milk them, and then produce cheese and yogurt.
“Some of the dairies in Mexico are unbelievable,” he says. “One farmer in Aguascaliente is milking 1,800 cows.”
In 2000, Illinois had 1,531 dairy farms with roughly 120,000 cows combined. That number decreased to 782 dairy farms in 2012 with around 98,000 cows across the state. The average Illinois herd size is 125 cows – double the average-size herd 20 years ago.
“Alot of guys quit because high feed costs can eat up all your profit,” Meyer says. “I’m one of the lucky ones who have found a way to keep making a living raising cattle.”
Many Illinois dairy farmers have found success by being part of a cooperative, such as Prairie Farms Dairy based in Carlinville. Prairie Farms began as a small creamery in 1938 and has evolved into a farmer-owned cooperative that processes milk from 765 farms in the Midwest. It has 37 manufacturing plants and 111 distribution points throughout 15 states, and its products include milk, ice cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, sour cream, dips, butter, cream and frozen treats.
“This year, Prairie Farms will celebrate 75 years of bringing quality dairy products to its many customers,” says Kasper Koch, a board member of Prairie Farms Dairy and vice president of the Illinois Milk Producers Association. “Prairie Farms’ success and growth are the result of hard work, dedication and support from our farm families and employees.”
Koch says one of the challenges the industry faces today is a declining consumption of milk among consumers, “even though milk is one of the most nutritious and healthy foods one can consume.”
Nevertheless, Prairie Farms has found a way to survive – and even thrive. At the 2009 Illinois State Fair, Prairie Farms’ products won 43 blue ribbons. Prairie Farms’ peach yogurt received a perfect score and Grand Champion Honors.
“From the dairy farms of its owners to the plants that process our products to the stores,” Koch says, “every detail in quality and freshness is taken so we can deliver the best and most nutritious dairy products possible.”