Another California exodus: Dairy cows leave for greener pastures in Texas, Arizona as farms are squeezed


Michael Oosten’s grandparents were dairy farmers in the Netherlands and emigrated to California in the 1920s. They started their own dairy farm in Paramount in 1945 before moving to larger farms in Artesia and Bellflower.

In the early 1970s, they moved their farm to Chino, but in 2001 decided to sell them to a transportation company adjacent to an Amazon warehouse, which was built on land that consisted of two other dairy farms.

East, who has owned Marvo Holsteins — a dairy in the unincorporated Riverside County area of ​​Lakeview that supplies milk to Land O’Lakes for 18 years — said California dairy farming has declined since the industry’s peak in 2008. The industry has been hurt by shrinking real estate in Southern California, more affordable land in other states, strict permitting procedures, and shortages of water and other natural resources.

“Economics is the biggest driver for farmers leaving to leave the state,” Oosten said. “Milk pricing is generally very competitive in other states; feed prices are lower and regulations are better.”

Real estate, in particular, has played a major role in more dairies choosing to leave California, he said.

Michael East on his family’s dairy farm in Lakeview, an unincorporated area of ​​Riverside County.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

“As the urban sprawl came in and got close to the farm, developers would come in and buy the land and convert it into residential or commercial buildings,” he said. “That’s the progression of what’s happened in the California dairy industry. More recently in the last 20 years, many people have left the state.”

Marvo Holsteins is one of about 1,200 remaining dairy farms in California, a significant drop from the roughly 2,100 farms in 2001 and 20,000 in 1950, according to Michael Boccadoro, executive director of the nonprofit Dairy Cares.

Although the number of dairy farms in the state has declined by 94% in the past 70 years, farmers have been able to make up for the difference through increased milk production and improved cow comfort and breeding, Boccadoro said.

“The idea that we’re building new dairies or increasing production in California is a non-starter,” he said. “We haven’t built a new dairy for six to seven years. It’s just not a good place when you get into milk production.”

The state went from housing about 1.88 million dairy cows in 2008 to about 1.72 million today — down from about 160,000 cows in 14 years, Boccadoro said. The number of cows in the state has decreased by about half a percent to 1% each year.

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Instead of staying in California, dairy cows are shipped to Texas, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, and Kansas — states not typically known for their dairy production. Boccadoro said declining demand for liquid milk and increased demand for cheese, yogurt, butter, whey protein and other milk-related products have pushed milk production to Midwestern states. Demand for dairy has increased by 200% since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Cows pass a cooling shower after being milked on dairy farm Marvo Holstein.

Cows go through a cooling shower after being milked at Marvo Holsteins dairy farm in Lakeview.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

“Historically, cows had to be close to the market because it was a fresh milk market and milk has a short shelf life of about two weeks, so there was a lot of milk production on the West Coast and East Coast,” he said. “With the demand for new products, the dairy sector is seeing milk production move to the center of the country due to the longer shelf life of the products.”

The proximity of new production sites has also driven the cows out of California. Hilmar Cheese Co. opened a factory in Texas, with another factory producing cheese and whey in Kansas. Last fall, Leprino Foods, another major dairy production company, announced it was building a new facility in Lubbock, Texas.

Another big question facing dairy farmers is whether they will have to deal with climate change regulations in the coming years and what effects they could have.

In 2016, California lawmakers passed the state’s short-term reduction of climate pollution law, known as SB 1383, and set a 2030 target to reduce methane emissions from the dairy and livestock industries by 40% below 2013 levels. , which amounts to about 9 million tons. of carbon dioxide. If the California Air Resources Board determines in 2024 that the dairy industry is not on track to meet its target, it can begin implementing regulations to limit emissions.

East said potential regulations could mean dairies must install anaerobic digesters — devices that control the breakdown of manure and convert methane into clean energy — and the use of feed additives to reduce the methane produced by cows by farmers.

“There’s that fear in California because as we start to create mandates and regulations, we start to lose our stimulus funding, we start to lose our options, and we start to lose farms,” ​​he said. “Some of them could go bankrupt, which would be an embarrassment to that family. … The other thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to pick up, leave and leave the state. The methane is still being produced; they have nothing to do with it [mandates] there and that’s the ‘leakage’ we were talking about.”

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Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive of Western United Dairies, a trade organization that represents the majority of California’s milk, agreed that from a global climate perspective, the state would be better off if more dairy farmers stayed in California.

Cows are milked by machines while a man watches one of the machines.

The cows are milked at the Marvo Holsteins dairy farm in Lakeview. California aims to reduce methane emissions from the dairy industry.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

“California exports methane to different locations, which means processing and production also leave, which was the state’s source of income for providing green products,” she said. “It’s designed as a reward system, but if we don’t make them here in California, they’re definitely going to make them elsewhere.”

Dairy industry concerns over aviation rules were reported in August by the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

For the record:

11:01 am September 16, 2022In an earlier version of this article, the name of California Air Resources Board spokesman David Clegern was misspelled as Clergen.

But David Clegern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said environmental regulations have little to do with the exodus of cows from California, as it won’t even be allowed to submit one for approval until 2024.

“Bovine prices are very high at the moment and have risen quite a bit this summer, so there could be more market forces there,” Clegern said.

Employees are in the early stages of developing a regulation on methane emissions by talking to community members and work groups, Clegern said.

“We won’t start until we have actual regulations,” he said. “It takes a few years to get through the public processes and the legal and other regulatory tests. We need to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with federal regulation and that it makes scientific sense and can be done in a reasonable and not too expensive way.

Bill Magavern, policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air, emphasized the importance of reducing methane, a short-lived climate pollutant that remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years and has 80 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

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“In addition to the impact of climate change, there are also major local pollution effects from these huge factory farms, including the methane itself that contributes to smog, which is already well above legal levels in the San Joaquin Valley,” he said. “The South Coast Air Basin and the San Joaquin Valley Air District are the two places in the country with the worst air pollution, which is where the California dairy industry is located.”

Magavern expressed his skepticism that possible regulations drive cows out of the state.

“I’ve seen them lobby for the past 20 years and oppose any measure that could lead them to reduce the pollution they emit in California,” he said of dairy farming. “They’re resisting everything, and now they’re complaining when they’re not even regulated is significant.”

A close-up of udders being milked by a machine and cow's feet.

The cows are milked on the Marvo Holsteins dairy farm.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

According to a report by the California Air Resources Board released this spring, the dairy and livestock sectors — which account for more than half of the state’s methane emissions — have cut its annual emissions by just over half. Dairy farmers will need to continue to adapt manure management systems, reduce livestock numbers and use digesters to meet the 2030 target.

But not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the dairy fermenters. Genevieve Amsalem, research and policy director for the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said dairy farms contribute to half of the particulate matter pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. The digesters, she said, create ammonia, which in turn causes air pollution and endangers public health.

“By installing a dairy digester, you’re using state money to institutionalize and set this practice in stone,” she said. “That’s a big concern that the state is institutionalizing these environmental disasters.”

Citing the high cost of digesters — it costs about $6 million to install one on a farm with 2,000 cows — and the fact that his farms don’t use as much water because they house their cows outdoors, Oosten said he’s in talks. is with fermenters and is not against the idea of ​​running them. As one of the incentives to reduce methane emissions, the state’s Dairy Digester Research & Development program covers part of the cost of a digester, while dairy farmers pay the rest.

East said his farms sell about 30% to 35% of their dairy herd, made up of about 2,500 cows, for beef each year and his livestock is relatively stable despite the consolidation of his family’s farms over the years.

“We don’t throw animals out of the state to get rid of them,” he said. “It’s based on economics and where dairies are most profitable.”


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