The dairy industry has seen its share of storms in recent years, and Duane Kaiser and his wife Colleen have weathered them in stride on their Century Farm near Monett, Missouri.
“There’ve been cows milked here for over 100 years,” Kaiser said. His great-grandparents were German emigrants who came to southwest Missouri by way of Wisconsin and Illinois. When his grandparents got married in 1914, they bought the neighboring 80 acres to their families’ homesteads and began milking at what is now the Kaiser Dairy.
“My wife and I decided when we got married she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom,” Kaiser said. “I was milking Grade C back then, and we decided we were going to have to increase our income. We started building the Grade A barn in ’85 and moved in January of ’86 in the ice storm.”
He said the original plan was to milk 30 cows while he taught high school agriculture but they expanded and upgraded from a double two bypass to a double four herringbone and then to a double five parabone. Now, they milk between 70 and 80 registered Jerseys and Guernseys.
“If we get over 80, I’ll cull somebody out,” Kaiser said. “That seems to work best for us.”
The parlor and herd size aren’t the only changes over the years. When they were milking Grade C, the Kaisers started out milking for Carnation but later went to Mid-Am and Dairy Farmers of America.
“We stayed with Mid-Am and DFA until 15 years ago,” Kaiser explained. “We have a higher component milk, and DFA here in southwest Missouri is pooled in Federal Order 7, which only pays on skim and butterfat. We decided to switch to Central Equity because they bought milk on components.
“We’re paid on butterfat, protein and other solids, and ordinarily we’ll make from $1 to $3 a hundred more on our milk, depending on the price of butterfat and protein,” he added.
Kaiser said his goal as a grazing dairy is a 40-pound tank average with 5% butterfat and 3.7% protein averages year-round.
The Kaisers have two calving seasons with half the herd calving in March and half in September while heifers calve the first of June.
“I always did that when I taught ag,” Kaiser said. “I didn’t want to be breaking heifers for the barn while I was trying to teach school and I didn’t want to leave it with my wife and kids to do.”
After teaching for 30 years and retiring from East Newton in 2010 and then teaching part time at Pierce City for 10 years, Kaiser retired this year from a career in agricultural education.
“I grazed before grazing was the popular thing to do,” Kaiser said, adding he’s followed the philosophy that it’s easier for the cows to harvest the forage than for the farmer to do it for them since his high school days.
“That’s the only way we’ve made any money — minimal machinery.”
The Kaisers graze Sudangrass, rye hybrids, and fescue-clover pastures. Their goal is to have cows on rye by March 1 and then move on to clover and fescue while the Sudangrass is growing. Usually by June 10, the cows are on Sudan pasture through September. Then, they graze rye in October until Thanksgiving.
The Kaisers supplement with hay, preferring Red River crabgrass hay and also feeding oat, orchardgrass-clover, fescue-clover, and some straight fescue hays.
The increase in popularity of grazing dairies is not the only change Kaiser has seen during his tenure as a dairyman.
“The biggest change is what I call the ‘Walmart-ization’ of the dairy industry,” Kaiser said. “The push in the dairy industry is to get bigger and bigger.”
He explained that has been the trend for the last 25 to 30 years.
“The profit per hundred pounds of milk at the farm keeps shrinking,” Kaiser said. “The farmer, in order to maintain a stable income, has to keep adding more cows, or they just get out.”
However, Kaiser said this system was challenged this spring with the outbreak of COVID-19.
“I think it showed the perils of that centralized processing type of system where if a little hiccup happens any place in that system, you have food going to waste and you have empty grocery store shelves,” Kaiser said.
“I think we need to move to smaller regionalized processing so that we guarantee a safe and adequate supply of food. Big is not always better.
“I think our co-op weathered the COVID storm a lot better than some of them,” Kaiser said, explaining Central Equity has multiple smaller markets for their milk so they managed to get it all marketed.
Other challenges for dairy farmers include labor and market volatility. With his children — Angie Wagner, James Kaiser and Stephanie Kaiser — grown, the Kaisers now hire a night milker and also get help from their granddaughters, Kylin and Sophie Wagner.
He said in January or February his milk netted almost $25 a hundred. In April, it was $11.55.
“To manage that volatility in the markets is hard to do,” he said.
Looking forward, he said they plan to stay the course and continue to milk 70 to 80 cows for a few more years before one of his children hopefully take over the dairy.
“Dairying has been good to us,” Kaiser said.
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