Melissa Bienvenu Photos by Brian GauvinI’m standing in a concrete pit, eyeball-to-udder with a big black and white lady named No. 418. In my hand is a device resembling a robotic spider. It has a palm-sized, stainless steel body with four black rubber tubes extending out like floppy legs. At the end of each leg is a rubber suction cup.
I reach under the enormous, spotted belly filling my range of vision and position the apparatus directly beneath Ms. 418’s udder. A bit nervously, I slide the suction cups up over each of her four pink, leathery teats. The vacuum force slurps them in. I release the automatic milker and it stays in place, held aloft through sheer suction.
Seconds later, her milk begins to flow. Apparently, I haven’t lost my touch, because No. 418 doesn’t even lift her head from the feed trough to inspect the stranger fumbling with her nether region.
The Schillingses, father, Donnie, left, and son, Dusty, right, share the daily workload, responsibility is ‘round-the-clock and the chores and worries are nonstop.
I guess milking a cow is like riding a bike – you never really forget how.
It’s been four years since my family added its name to the long list of former Louisiana dairy farmers. For most of the last 15 years, the sky has been falling on America’s dairymen. No region has been hit harder than the Southeast, where family dairies have been squeezed between rock-bottom milk prices and the highest production costs in the nation.
A guide for city folk
The author – and wife of a former lifelong dairy farmer – answers the most Frequently Asked Questions about dairy farming.
Do all cows give milk? No, cows are like humans and every other mammal: only females who have recently given birth produce mother’s milk. So one of the challenges in dairy farming is keeping your girls perpetually in the family way, whether you depend on a bull or artificial insemination. That may seem obvious but in this urban society of ours, many otherwise intelligent people assume all things that go “moo” give milk all the time. How else could the animated kids’ movie, Barnyard, get away with featuring a cartoon bull who speaks in the deep, manly voice of Sam Elliott and has a great big udder – something found strictly on female cows? To a dairy farmer and anyone else who knows better, that’s just creepy.
How do you keep the cows from peeing and pooping on you while you’re milking them? Um, you don’t.
Don’t you have machines now that do all the milking? Sort of, but it still takes a live human being to herd the cows up to the barn, clean the cows, attach the automatic milking equipment, remove the equipment and post-treat the cows – at least on the typical Louisiana farm. I hear there’s now some high tech deal that will attach itself to the cow but the units cost $100,000 apiece and most farms would need at least two. A gallon of milk will have to get more expensive than a gallon of Chanel No. 5 before those catch on.
Do families on a dairy farm still get their milk straight from the cow? You can, and we have, but it’s not really recommended. Raw milk hasn’t been pasteurized, so it may contain potentially harmful bacteria. Plus, it’s a lot richer and contains globs of butterfat, so it feels a little weird in your mouth if you’re used to the homogenized, store-bought stuff. I hate to admit how many special, 6-mile trips we made to Winn Dixie after we “ran out of milk.” Meanwhile, we had thousands of gallons of the stuff sitting in our dairy barn.
Have you ever been cow-tipping? Some sources claim it’s possible to sneak up on a sleeping cow in the middle of the night and topple her over. My husband, who’s spent his entire life on a dairy farm, not only never has, he’d never even heard of cow-tipping until a friend of mine from Atlanta came down here all fired-up to try it. My husband points out that cows don’t sleep standing up. Plus, cows’ senses are far more acute than ours. You’d probably have better luck sneaking up on a ninja. Besides, you pay $2,000 or more for a good milk cow, you’ve gotta be pretty stupid to let somebody from Atlanta go knocking her around. – M.B.
Ninety percent of Louisiana dairy farms are “pasture-based:” limited in the number of cows they can milk. In pasture-based farming, animals graze in open fields, requiring a lot of land.
Louisiana has fared among the worst. In 1980, the state had 1,057 dairy farms. In 2007, there were 209. That’s an 80 percent loss.
Frankly, I’m astounded there are any dairy farms left in Louisiana. More than two-thirds are clumped together in Tangipahoa Parish (the leader) and next-door Washington Parish, where we live. When my husband and I bought his parents’ Franklinton farm in 1995, this “milkshed” – which also includes St. Helena Parish and part of Mississippi – had more dairy cows in one spot and frequently produced more milk than any other in the southeast.
Twelve years later, most of the farmers we know are out of business. The landscape is littered with abandoned dairy barns and pastures turned into trailer parks or gravel quarries.
Among the few left standing are our neighbors, Donnie and Frances Schillings, who are in business with their son and daughter-in-law, Dusty and Marisa. I’ve come to their place today not only for a refresher in cow-milking but to remember the past and see the future of Louisiana’s dairy industry.
Donnie Schillings once went 12 years without missing a single milking.
Allow me to explain exactly what that means. That means Mr. Donnie showed up to milk his cows not just seven days a week for 12 years, but twice a day seven days a week for 12 years. It’s common – and mandatory – for family dairy farms to milk their cows every 12 hours, seven days a week, come hell or high water. But rare is the proprietor who doesn’t get someone to fill in occasionally. Hey, everyone needs a break.
That’s the kind of tenacity that kept survivors like the Schillingses holding on through the dairy industry’s darkest days.
Donnie, Frances, Marleigh, Marisa, Dusty and Ethan Schillings operate Rolling Hill Farm – a family-owned dairy farm on Schillings Road.
Mr. Donnie’s daughter-in-law views his incredible attendance record another way.
“Paw-Paw, that’s an illness,” jokes Marisa, a funny, frank 29-year-old who grew up on a Mississippi dairy before marrying Dusty, the youngest of the Schillings’ three children. Marisa will be the first to admit she’s not as hard-core as some people in the dairy business. Other dairymen’s daughters have told me they avoided marrying back into the dairy lifestyle with its huge financial stakes, confining hours and constant headaches. Other women have said they point-blank threatened divorce when their husbands considered going into it.
A dairy, you see, is a lot like a toddler – it’s easy to take care of as long as you give it constant attention. The responsibility is ‘round-the-clock and the chores and worries nonstop. Whether by design or default, most farmers’ wives get dragged into it one way or another. Marisa, a teacher currently staying at home with the couple’s two babies, quips, “I paid a good chunk for my education so I could work in the air conditioning.” She and Dusty’s mother, Mrs. Frances, do all the farm bookkeeping and herd record keeping. Mrs. Frances also feeds the baby calves every day.
The two families live within waving distance of each other on side-by-side hilltops on the farm. Both generations work together to make sure every job gets done.
“We have an ideal situation here,” remarks Mrs. Frances. “If Marisa needs to go out at night and help Dusty run some cows back inside the fence, I can just run over and stay with the kids.”
If there remains any such a thing as a “typical” Louisiana dairy farm, the Schillingses probably aren’t it. For one thing, at 109 cows, their operation is slightly smaller than the average of 120 cows. For another, Dusty Schillings is only 34 years old. In a profession where the average age is 60-something, my 48-year-old husband would be considered a little kid. Louisiana’s dairymen are aging and their offspring are stampeding toward greener pastures.
“We are so thankful that our son wanted to dairy farm with us,” remarks Mrs. Frances. “There aren’t many young people who are willing to work this hard seven days week.”
The Schillingses are unusual in one more respect: They’re still in business. They say they’ve survived by keeping outside labor costs low and practicing tight-fisted financial management. Father and son share the daily workload, with Dusty doing most of the milking since Mr. Donnie had open-heart surgery in 2005.
They also credit innovative farming practices Dusty brought home from Louisiana State University, where he got his degree in dairy science. This year, the Schillingses hired a consultant to help them “flush” a cow. (They harvested several eggs from one of the herd’s top milk producers, artificially fertilized them and implanted them back into four surrogate mother cows. That’s pretty high-tech stuff for a small family farm.)
“Without Dusty, I would’ve had to sell out,” Donnie says appreciatively. “The place would have just growed up and I would have hated to see that.”
I’m convinced that anyone still milking cows in 2007 just flat-out loves what they do. There is also the call of tradition.
Mr. Donnie, 72, is one of eight children of Silas Schillings, one of Washington Parish’s first dairy farmers. Four of Silas’ five sons and one daughter followed him into farming. A few children also took up his other profession, hauling other farmers’ milk to market. Then many of Silas’ grandchildren grew up to be dairy farmers.
For years, Schillings dairies seemed to occupy all of Mt. Hermon, a bucolic community of rolling hills a few miles northwest of Franklinton. Throughout the wee hours, the familiar glow of working dairy barns shone like beacons across the landscape. Washington Parish’s sidewalks may have rolled up at 5 o’clock but its countryside was open for business all night.
CAUGHT IN A BUCKET
Now, sadly, the only Schillings family members still dairying are Mr. Donnie and Dusty, plus one of Donnie’s brothers and a nephew.
Drive past the Schillings’ Rollin Hill Dairy on any given day and you’ll probably see Mr. Donnie on a tractor, setting out big round bales of hay or taking the cows to graze.
“I’ve probably been milking cows since I was 5 years old, recalls Donnie Schillings. He and Mrs. Frances got married at 16. He spent four years in the service. “Then I went into the dairy business in 1955 with eight cows,” he recalls.
At the time, dairymen still milked the old-fashioned way – one squeeze at a time. The milk was caught in a bucket and then poured into larger, stainless steel milk cans that were stored in a cooler. Trucks hauled the cans of milk to New Orleans creameries such as Brown’s Velvet, Borden’s and Gold Seal.
Like many other hard-working dairymen, Mr. Donnie held down a second job. Just like his daddy, he hauled milk.
“I’d do the morning milking, then we’d haul milk to Brown’s Velvet. I’d get back home about noon and go do tractor work in the field. By then it was time to do the afternoon milking,” he says adding needlessly, “You didn’t sit around too much.”
This area’s dairy industry sprang up in the 1930s to replace a waning cotton, strawberry and row-cropping economy, according to Mike McCormick, Director of the LSU Agricultural Center’s Southeastern Dairy Research Station in Franklinton. Cotton farming was dying out in southern Louisiana and relocating to the Mississippi Delta. At the same time, the expanding populations of New Orleans and Baton Rouge were thirsty for local dairy products.
At first, farmers milked just a few cows and let them forage in the piney woods for sustenance. Eventually, grass seed, chemicals and mechanized farm equipment allowed farmers to plant pastures for grazing, McCormick tells me.
By the 1940s, local milk traveled daily to New Orleans daily on the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroad. Local lore involving the GM&O calls to mind a milky version of the Boston Tea Party. Once, accusing the creameries of conspiring to cheat them, an angry mob of Louisiana dairymen converged on the Amite train station and dumped all the milk onto the ground – plus some of the mail. Perhaps there’s no use crying over spilt milk but messing with the U.S. mail is a whole different story. For that federal offense, a few farmers went to prison. A more peaceful outcome of the riot, however, was the formation of this area’s first milk-marketing cooperative to peacefully protect farmers’ interests. (Decades later, ironically, lots of angry ex-Louisiana dairymen would blame their downfall, in part, on the now-huge, nationwide co-ops.)
Starting in the 1960s, hand-milking and milk cans gave way to timesaving automation. In addition to his dairy farm, my father-in-law, Harvey Bienvenu Sr., owned and operated Franklinton Dairy Supply from the early ’60s to the late ’90s. He installed and serviced many of this area’s first pipelines that carried milk directly from the cow to a refrigerated storage tank. He helped introduce many other modern innovations, too. Parlor barns – pit-style barns like the Schillings’ – eliminated the back-murdering task of bending over and enabled the farmer to milk more cows simultaneously. Automatic milkers had to be attached with human hands but, with the addition of automatic takeoffs, removed themselves. Stainless steel refrigerated bulk tanks quickly cooled the milk from 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which it came out of the cow, to 34 degrees. Mix mills enabled farmers to make their own customized cattle feed, pumping up their herd’s output. Computerized feeders allowed each cow to be automatically fed an individual portion size based on her production Along the way, gentler Jersey cows were edged out by the larger, more productive Holsteins, the black and white spotted behemoths currently depicted as the “happy cows” in the TV commercials. (More about that later.)
And mom-and-pop milk haulers gave way to 18-wheelers with sleek, shiny tanks holding up to 50,000 pounds of milk at a time. Each 24 or 48 hours (depending on the season and amount of milk being given) the milk truck pulls up outside the Rollin Hill dairy barn. A hose is uncoiled, passed through a trap door into the strainer room and hooked up to the bulk tank. The raw milk flows through the hoses into the refrigerated truck, which hauls it to a processing plant for homogenization and pasteurization.
After that, it’s all up to the federal government, the marketing co-ops and the bottlers. I can’t think of many occupations where you find out how much you make when you go to the mailbox two weeks later. Sometimes, it was the scariest part of your day.
Recently I paid $3.99 for a gallon of milk in Franklinton. In some parts of Louisiana, a gallon is around $5. Now that farmers are getting a fair shake, I’m happy to pay those prices.
The price of milk on the shelf, by the way, is not a very accurate reflection of farmers’ fortunes. When wholesale prices go way down, grocery prices rarely follow suit. That irks farmers. The public doesn’t understand why they’re bellyaching about milk prices when grocery prices are about the same. But that’s another story.
The formula for pricing raw milk is so complicated I’ve heard Ph.D.s liken it to brain surgery, only trickier. The minimum price is set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is intended to ensure a steady supply of fresh milk across the nation. From there it gets a lot more complicated.
If milk were priced solely on straight-up supply and demand in their own backyard, Louisiana farmers would be sitting pretty. Why? Farmers here cannot produce enough milk to sate demand. That’s because Louisiana’s hot weather stresses dairy cows, natives of cooler places. Climate also prevents farmers in the Deep South from growing alfalfa, the very best fuel for making milk. And we are too far away from the source to have it shipped here affordably.
Furthermore, because 90 percent of Louisiana dairy farms are “pasture-based,” they are limited in the number of cows they can milk. In pasture-based farming, animals graze in open fields. That requires a lot of land. In confinement dairying – a relatively new style popular out West – cows are fenced inside dirt-floor lots and have all their food delivered. Confinement dairying allows much larger herds on much less acreage.
The largest pasture-based farms in Louisiana milk 300 to 400 cows but confinement dairies out West can milk thousands. Dairy farming on bare dirt lots doesn’t really work in the Deep South. Our soil, combined with our rainfall, makes for a muddier environment than farms face out West. Excessive mud and heat cause unacceptably high bacteria counts in milk.
Back in the 1980s, confinement dairies started spreading across the West like wildfire, says James Beatty, Ph.D., retired director of the LSU AgCenter Southeastern Dairy Research Station in Franklinton. Part of the reason for runaway milk production was too-high government support prices that started in the ’70s. High “floor” prices virtually guaranteed farmers a profit whether they had a place to sell their milk or not. (Support prices fell back into line during the Regan administration but they were never adjusted after that to keep up with rising production costs.) Sparked by high support prices as well as California’s exorbitant property values, farmers began cashing in and looking for places to reinvest. New Mexico, West Texas, Utah, Idaho and other states were ideal. They offered cheap land, cool nights, low humidity and access to top-quality forages.
The rise of these Western mega-dairies – coupled with stagnant demand for dairy products – flooded the market with milk. Ultimately, it jerked the rug from under milk prices, which previously had been fairly stable for decades.
Confinement dairying, by the way, is also called California-style dairying, after the state where it originated. So, to a Louisiana dairy farmer, those TV commercials depicting California cows gallivanting in fields of clover are doubly irritating. They know that most of those California critters never set foot in a grassy pasture. As one local farmer so adroitly observed, “Happy Cows – my ass.”
These sweeping changes couldn’t have come at a worse time for my family – about the time we financed $400,000 worth of my in-law’s land, cows and equipment. For most of the 11 years we dairied, our income either fell short or just barely covered expenses. At times, milk prices were no higher than they were in the 1970s.
We kept hoping things would get better. We tried to become more efficient. We wrote letters to politicians. We went to meetings where frustrated dairy farmers vented but nothing got accomplished. A delegation of southern dairy advocates, including Jim Beatty, went to Congress to ask for help. They secured enough votes to pass a bill that might have rescued southern dairymen but a Wisconsin senator killed it by threatening to filibuster.
“That was a tough old bird,” recalls Beatty. “He never left the Senate judiciary hearing room all day. He had a three-foot-tall stack of textbooks on his desk on how to make cheese. He planned to read aloud from them for long as it took.”
The powerful midwestern dairy lobby got their way. They were feeling the pressure from the huge Western dairies, too, and they had designs on our under-supplied market. After all, they could make milk and truck it down here cheaper than we could make it – as long as gasoline was cheap. The southern group countered that gasoline might not always be so cheap and that letting the southern dairy industry go down the tubes could set the region up for high prices and spot shortages.
Though remarkably on-target, these dire predictions fell on deaf ears.
After that, it seemed like farmers here lost hope. We watched as more and more of our colleagues closed up shop. Somehow, we hung on until our milk checks were too pitiful to even pay our feed bills.
In the summer of 2003, our national cooperative instituted a program that paid dairy farmers to stop producing milk. It wasn’t a perfect solution but it beat bankruptcy or foreclosure. With Dr. Beatty’s guidance, my husband and I submitted a bid and our farm was the first chosen from Louisiana. The victory was bittersweet. One requirement for getting the money was agreeing to send our entire milk herd to slaughter, a downside so troubling I still can barely stand to think about it. But like so many family dairies before us, we did what we had to do. Almost overnight, our dairy barn fell silent for the first time in three generations and almost 50 years.
The Lord and the global economy move in mysterious ways.
Early in 2007, dairy farmers finally got some good news in their mailboxes. A “perfect storm” of worldwide events had converged to send milk prices through the roof.
This summer, farmers were being paid about $24 for every 100 pounds of milk, the standard unit for pricing milk. That compares to about $10 when we called it quits in 2003.
So what happened? Experts like Ronnie Bardwell, area dairy agent for the LSU Southeast Research Station, cite such far-flung causes as a two-year drought in Australia, the world’s No. 1 exporter of powdered milk. At the same time, demand for powdered milk took off in places like India and China.
Closer to home, serious heat in California and too much rainfall in New Mexico, two of the biggest players, dried up surpluses. Meanwhile, domestic milk consumption jumped for the first time in years. Bardwell and McCormick point to new research touting the weight-loss benefits of milk as part of a low-fat diet. The switch away from paper cartons to plastic has boosted sales in fast-food restaurants and schools, too. Milk in plastic cartons not only tastes better, it’s more convenient for on-the-go lifestyles and even fits into vehicle cup holders. The growing craze for milk-based drinks such as iced coffee, smoothies and cappuccino also helped bring about this new heyday for dairy farmers.
The record high prices are a welcome windfall but still no fairy tale ending. For a while, most farmers will simply be digging themselves out of the holes created by years of selling their milk too cheaply. And the hot market – while it lasts – won’t fix the underlying problems that could turn the whole thing sour again.
Still, I’m delighted for deserving farmers like the Schillings family – and just a little sad for those of us who didn’t make it.
As Dusty heads out for the afternoon milking, he swoops Silas Schillings’ 2-year-old great-granddaughter into his arms to take her to the barn.
“Dusty will be so disappointed if Marleigh or Ethan [the couple’s infant] don’t want to go into farming,” says Marisa.
So far, the Schillings legacy appears to be safe.
“I milk cows,” Marleigh announces, dissolving into silly giggles. “And I milk pigs.”
This reminds me of another child, another farm, another time.
Our youngest son Matthew was not yet born when we quit dairying in 2003. He was just barely walking and talking when we went to look at my brother-in-law’s beef cattle one afternoon. Matthew toddled toward the fence, stopped in his tracks and pointed at a cow. Wide-eyed, he turned to me and asked a question I never imagined any Bienvenu would have to ask: “What’s dat?”