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Elzingas Disperse Award Winning Herd

by Bev Berens

Published: Friday, April 13, 2018

A bitter wind pushed crowds to the barns for shelter, but the cold's pain was minor compared to the pain of watching a life's work be scattered with the wind to new homes.

One by one, the award-winning herd walked through the auction ring in a little tent at the end of the barn. One by one, the gavel fell as new owners took possession of the more than 450 head herd built over forty-two years of toil and commitment.

Daybreak Dairy of Zeeland, Michigan was another in a long line of victims who have sold out due to the current dairy economy.

"I just couldn't take the stress anymore," said an emotional 73-year-old Dan Elzinga, senior partner at Daybreak Dairy LLC. "The farm has been good to us, but it's been too long, too low; the prices have got to change."

The farm is a three-way partnership between Dan, his oldest son, Paul who over-sees crops, and Nate Elzinga. Nate and his wife, Jenny, were named as the 2017 Michigan Milk Producers Association Outstanding Young Dairy Cooperators. They delivered an emotional acceptance speech at the organization's an-nual meeting in March, bringing the entire crowd to tears, and then to their feet in a show of sup-port.

"Paul is burned out," Dan said. "He wants to continue working crops in some way. Nate, he just wasn't in this long enough, he didn't have enough skin in the game. We have to figure out what to do with the buildings and everything else. We still have a lot of decisions."

Dan purchased the farm in 1976, beginning with forty cows. The herd grew to 60 cows, then 120. "And we just kept growing from there," Dan said.

In 2011, the farm hosted a Breakfast on the Farm event. It has also earned awards through DHI, Holstein Association and MMPA for quality and production. They have also been recognized by Hoards Dairyman for quality heifer care. The herd had a 91-milking average with 4% fat.

United Producers handled the sale. Fresh cows and heifers ranged from $800-2600, bred cows and heifers ranged from $700-2600, dry cows from $1100-2000, springers from $1650-2000 and shortbreds from $900 -1400.

"Today is a bad day, but two to three weeks ago was harder," said Nate Elzinga. "I've been trying to process it all ahead of time; I'm trying to get myself ready to move on to the next phase."

The youngest partner has already taken a job in dairy nutrition. Along with some part time consulting, he hopes to help other dairy farmers excel nutri-tionally from lessons he has learned. "I'll get to work with cows, just not my own," Nate said.

Nate and Jenny have watched their children suffer through the process, a burden even more over-whelming than any personal loss felt when dreams collide with things beyond control.

"Stuff needs to happen," Nate said in a choked voice. "I don't blame large farms or small farms; we all play by the same rules. And at this point the rules need to change for everybody."

"The deal with us (farm-ers) being used as bargaining tools for trade has to stop. Less than two percent of the population is being leveraged on the gambling table and you can't do that. By the time people realize what has happened, it is going to be too late. The cost of production is too high; we either need to get paid more for our product or need help on the cost side if we want the consolidation to slow down."

Martin Mangual, MSU Extension dairy specialist said, "Times are really hard especially for this size of herd, right in the middle. Small farms, older farms, have a low amount of debt, lower costs for labor, and they have some capacity to ride it out longer as do large farms on the vol-ume and efficiency side."

Another problem, according to Mangual, is that while farm numbers are in rapid decline, cow numbers are not decreasing, and therefore, no reduction in the surplus of milk.

A void in cheese processing capacity is another issue. However, new cheese processing ventures are in the works. But will it be too little, too late for an industry already gasping for life? In the end, he hopes that there will be farms of varying sizes left standing when the down cycle eventually turns around.

"Don't wait to do your transition plan-ning," said Nate. "And just as important, do your exit planning as well so people can get in and out without destroying the business and lives."

"For those people going through what I am going through to-day, talking helps. The industry has been really supportive; getting off the farm is helpful and getting perspective from people going through the same thing is too."

"In the end I think the dairy industry has a bright fu-ture; we have a good, healthy product and it's not like we are trying to sell a sugary drink," Nate said. "It's just going to take awhile to turn this around."

"God is good, and he will continue to be good to us while we sort this all out," Dan added.

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