ST. LOUIS — What if Cathy and Chuck McCune told you there’s life after dairying? What if they told you that selling roughly 70 dairy cows didn’t have to be the end of their dairy farming story? What if they told you that being prideful and smart are two totally different things?
Would you believe them?
If you did, you’d know “there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Cathy said.
“There’s life after dairy farming. Dairy farmers need to understand that,” she told Michigan Farm News. “We saw the writing on the wall — that we couldn’t keep dipping into our equity anymore.”
Amid five years of declining milk prices, more Grade A dairy farms have gone out of business. In Michigan, a 12% reduction in the number of Grade-A dairy permits since 2017 means fewer operators in the state. Some are holding onto their dairy operations too long, according to Cathy, and filing for bankruptcy as a result. Others are shifting away from the farming business altogether, choosing a different vocation with a more steady income — one that doesn’t rely on weather-app forecasts.
At the McCune Centennial Farm, this meant shifting from a dairy operation to one that raises heifers and dry cows.
The changes are working, said Cathy, who’s in the process of transitioning over the fifth-generation farm in Midland County to her son, Chase.
“There isn’t a farmer out there who doesn’t know how to weld,” Cathy said, “(but) pride gets in the way, the system gets in the way. I want farmers to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, (but) sometimes you have to reinvent who you are.”
If not for change, the McCunes could have been another dairy farm forced to sell their cows in order to pay off debt. Instead, the family chose to sell off the herd last summer.
“Our feed bills were accumulating,” Chuck said. “You have to figure out how else to make money. … You can’t have that Debbie Downer attitude.”
According to Trent Hilding, an agricultural attorney for the Vestaburg-based Trent C. Hilding plc., there are a lot of dairies “struggling and wondering whether or not they are failing” as farmers. Just last April, the Elzingas in Zeeland sold off their dairy herd, citing the consolidation that’s hurting smaller dairies. In Wisconsin, 800 dairies have closed in the past 12 months, indicating that the trend’s endemic of the entire dairy industry.
As victims to God’s sometimes cruel whack-a-dairy game, Michigan farmers are struggling to adapt to the ever-changing farm economy, international tariff spats and industry-wide consolidation.
“There are second-generation farmers, and they don’t want to fail,” said Hilding, who represents the McCunes. “Some are running away because they have no other option. For others, for the McCunes, the dairy operation was no longer this cash cow. The mom and dad are quasi-retired, so getting rid of the cows was a way to get rid of some debt.”
By running a dry cow operation, Hilding said the McCunes are successfully using their current facilities for another career path.
“A lot of the time, we are talking to people about how there are other avenues,” he said. “They’re using facilities while getting a paycheck.”
A couple who’s been married for almost 43 years, the McCunes would like to travel more — a scenario that didn’t happen much while dairying. That’s why they’re in the initial stages of moving over the business to Chase, where everything will be leased from the couple.
“We need T-shirts that read, ‘Recovering Dairy Farmer,’” Chuck said with a laugh.
“In our case, Chase didn’t want to do a dairy farm, so why are we doing this then? It wasn’t working,” Chuck added. “It helped when he said that. That put us over the limit. There has to come to a point where you realize what’s happening to you.
“We chose our avenue; the bank didn’t tell us we had to sell.”The Michigan Farm News’ coverage on succession planning includes interviews with local farmers, attorneys and accountants. If you or a farmer you know is going through a succession plan and wants to share his or her story, contact Mitch Galloway at [email protected]