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Dairy farmers making tough decisions as industry struggles
Nestled among milk production records and cow calendars in Mike Luis' dairy office are tucked three baby name books.
His own three children grown and some with kids of their own, the dairyman turns to the guides when he needs inspiration for a newborn calf or heifer. He has 500 head of cattle at his Linda farm, and whether they are named Bertie, Mariah or Frizzi, none are known by a numbered ear tag.
"A dairy does more than make milk and cow manure," Luis said. "We really baby our animals around here."
But it's not as easy as it once was.
See a slide show of the Luis Dairy at http://www.appeal-democrat.com/sections/slideshow/?id=16416279
With low milk prices and soaring feed costs pushing dairies out of business, this fourth-generation farmer is doing everything he can to ensure a future for the daughter and granddaughter he envisions will carry on the family business.
"I love my cows," he said. "And how many jobs can you have with your daughter and granddaughter working alongside you?"
Struggle to survive
In 2011, milk was the fifth-highest valued crop in Yuba County, generating $14.7 million in value among just four dairies. Yet, despite an increase of $3.5 million over the previous year, dairymen felt no profit in their pockets.
"The cost of production went so outrageously high, we lost more money in the last year than we ever have in our lifetime," Luis said.
Grain feed for milk cows that usually costs $160 to $170 per ton has rocketed up to $320 per ton and jumped again in September to $420. Luis feeds his cows 3 tons of grain a day, so the extra expense adds up quickly.
Luis admits he has started to fall behind in payments and is looking to take out a bank loan to keep his family dairy afloat. To make ends meet, he sells a few of his lowest-volume producers every month, but since no other dairies can afford to take them on, they are sent to butcher.
The normally cheery farmer, who has helped deliver every cow on his farm, chokes up as he talks about those he has sent away.
"I just wish I could hold on to them all," he said. "I hate to see the cows go, but it keeps us going for another month or two."
Among the five dairies in Yuba-Sutter, Luis knows one plans to soon pack up its cows and truck them to Idaho in hopes of finding a buyer who wants them for milk production rather than slaughter.
Five years ago, California was home to 2,200 dairies. In January, that number was down to 1,650 and has since fallen to 1,500.
As veterinarian Tom Graham made a visit to Luis Dairy recently, he said industry struggles are difficult to watch. Providing care to cows from Marysville to Turlock, he has seen too many forced into painful choices.
"It really bothers me. A lot of people have done this their entire lives and they are losing everything they have," said Graham, whose wife's family helped pioneer the California dairy industry in the early 1800s. "It's not just a matter of saying, 'This is business.' These are friends."
Farming for the joy of it
A chorus of mooing sounds from one of Luis Dairy's covered barns as tails flick the occasional fly and cows snooze in the morning sun. Acre after acre of lush corn wave in the breeze, soon to be harvested, chopped and stored for silage to feed the herd through the winter.
"C'mon, girls," calls Luis' daughter, Megan, giving a few a gentle rump smacks to get them moving to the morning milking. Their udders taut, they file one by one into the milk barn and munch contentedly on grain as machines began to draw out their milk.
The cows are milked twice a day, starting around noon and again around 1 a.m. It takes four to five hours to get through the 225 cows or so in production.
"You gotta love it," Luis said, noting his days often run from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., 365 days a year.
When he's not busy with day-to-day duties, he loans cows to a school program that brings cows to classrooms or serves as dairy group leader for regional 4-H programs. His cows have been shown by students at the Yuba-Sutter Fair for 42 of the last 44 years, as he teaches the next generation about cows and the industry.
Luis' morning rounds are an easygoing routine, hosing down walkways in bare feet, hefting buckets of warm milk to calves and giving an extra treat to one of his oldest and most-beloved cows, Joli.
As he checks on the expectant heifers, he pulls a long slip of paper from his pocket and notes the estimated birth dates of each new calf. But nature is seldom predictable, and when he looks out into the dry pen, he spots a cow in labor.
Within an hour, he had her in the nursery and helped the first-time mother deliver a dazed and slippery calf. Like a proud new father, Luis could not help but grin as he peeked between its legs.
"It's a girl!" he exclaimed, noting in a few years she will be a milk-maker like her mother.
Dairy in the DNA
Luis comes from a long line of dairymen. Growing up in Yuba-Sutter, his father was the farmer as his mother ran the milking operation.
"The only time she wasn't milking cows was when she had one of us kids," Luis said.
Within a few days of giving birth, Zelma Luis was back in the milk barn, a bassinet and her newborn at her side. Even today, the spry 80-year-old makes rounds around the dairy, giving affection to the cows and overseeing the accounting.
Another familiar face on the farm is Megan Luis, who has helped with the cows her entire life and has dreams of taking the reins over from her father some day.
In high school, she had fleeting thoughts of becoming an interior designer, but while taking classes at Yuba College, she decided the family business was where her heart really lies.
"I think it's genetic. I'm just a carbon copy of my dad," she said.
It gives her great joy to feel her 5-year-old daughter, Melanie, tugging at her sleeve, begging to help with the afternoon milking or watching the girl dance with a barn cat as calves look on with interest.
"It's a great way to grow up, chasing cows and cats," Megan said. "I want her to have it, too."
What scares her is that dream may be at risk as the dairy industry continues to struggle.
"You just don't know what's gonna happen," Megan said. "And the only way a dairy can make money is that milk check. Right now, it's all costing, but it's worth it to have it as long as we can."