Rising operating costs, long hours and stagnant prices have taken a toll. But despite fewer farmers, production has risen slightly in the past year.
Kathy Steinke begged her husband, Doug, not to convert their hog and cattle operation in northwestern Anoka County to a dairy farm. She was raised on a dairy farm, where the stress of 15-hour workdays and no vacations over 20 years cut short her father's life and drained remaining family members.
But Doug, who grew up milking cows just a few miles from his current 200 acres in Nowthen, converted the farm anyway, in 1981. Now, his is one of only two remaining dairy farms in all of Anoka County.
The number of dairy farms is evaporating throughout Minnesota, but in some metro-area counties, they're disappearing nearly as quickly as a child chugs a carton of milk.
Feed costs that quadrupled in recent years and milk prices that remain stagnant because of an archaic federal regulating system dating to the 1930s only begin to explain how Minnesota's dairy-farm total has dropped by nearly 200 in each of the past dozen years, according to the state Department of Agriculture. In January 2011, Minnesota had 4,435 dairy farms. Now there are 4,079.
"I had it in my head all my life to go into dairy," said Steinke, 75, of the honest and honorable farm tradition that arrived in Minnesota with its earliest settlers. "But there ain't enough money in it -- not with today's milk and feed prices."
Long, strenuous work days involving two or three milkings -- beginning before dawn and sometimes ending after 9 p.m. -- and a lack of health and retirement benefits have convinced many dairy farmers who can't make ends meet to leave the business.
In the Twin Cities area, where the seduction of developers' money can outweigh the grueling but romantic tradition of working the land, dairy farms that spanned several generations are gone.
Ramsey County has only one dairy farm -- in Falcon Heights, belonging to the University of Minnesota. Isanti County has four, Sherburne County eight. Hennepin County, with mile after mile of pastoral rural terrain in its western suburbs, has only 13 dairy farms.
While Minnesota ranks seventh nationally in milk production and has seen an overall increase of 1 percent in the past year, several metro-area counties lost dairy farms over the same period. Dakota and Scott counties -- with 22 and 41 dairy farms, respectively -- each lost three in recent months. Washington County (down to 17 dairy farms) and Chisago (21) also lost dairy farms. And Carver County, with the largest number of dairy farms in the metro area -- 101 -- lost a dozen in the past year..
"For years, we promoted Minnesota as a great place to dairy," said Curt Zimmerman, supervisor of livestock development for the state's Department of Agriculture. "We have an advantage over the South and West because we grow our own feed -- even in a drought year."
But, Zimmerman says, the price of "good, quality hay has more than doubled, if you can find it." With gas near $4 a gallon, the price of hay and corn will probably rise again, experts say.
Doug Steinke said that he no longer has the time or manpower to raise enough feed for his 70 milking cows and total herd of 203 animals.
He recalls the days of paying $1.50 for a bushel of feed corn. But during this summer of drought, he says he's paid as much as $8 a bushel.
"I knew what I was getting into when we got into dairy production and I think I'm better at it now than when we started, 30 years ago," Steinke said.
"We're producing 6,600 pounds of milk every day, which I think is very good for a farm this size. But it's not enough."
Kathy Steinke, 73, says the family spends $3,000 a month for feed and maintenance.
"We pay more for feed than we get for milk," she said.
"Three years ago, the developers were calling," she said, knowing that their son, Tony, 41, will be taking over the farm Doug bought in 1959. Ninety-eight percent of Minnesota's dairy farms are family-owned.
"We like living out here, in the country but close to the cities," she said, referring to negotiations with developers. "We turned them down. But I've got to tell you, it was tempting."
The exceptions to the selling trends in the metro area are Wright County -- which has had development booms in Buffalo, Albertville and St. Michael, but maintains 94 dairy farms -- and Carver County.
Developers have not been attracted to the western part of Carver County the way they've been drawn to Chanhassen and Chaska. And with century-old Bongard's Creamery housing its main store in Carver County, local dairy farms have a convenient outlet and processor, noted David Weinard, grants administrator for the Department of Agriculture.
Proximity can make or break a dairy farm, particularly with rising transportation costs.
Many local farmers continue to lament the milk-marketing orders that were developed nationally to encourage milk production away from the industry's epicenter -- which was determined to be, and remains, Eau Claire, Wis. The government determined that dairy operations away from the Midwest could charge more for milk products than farms in Heartland states such as Wisconsin or Minnesota.
"People don't drive 1930s vehicles anymore," Weinard said. "What was effective then is not effective today. There's a lot of talk about the federal government revamping federal milk-market orders. We're waiting."
Other states have taken advantage of the ability to charge higher prices. Wisconsin is America's Dairyland in name but is second to California in milk production. New York, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Texas also produce more than Minnesota.
Innovation and education may hold the keys to the metro area's dairy-production future, say two successful farmers.
Hugo Mayor Fran Miron runs the dairy farm his great-grandfather settled in 1887. His son, Paul, 27, the fifth generation, will take it over. Fran Miron is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. So is Paul.
"The image of the farmer in dirty bib overalls, who can't string two words together, with a strand of hay dangling from his mouth ... that doesn't exist anymore," Fran Miron said. "What doesn't change is the love for the land and the animals. Being able to work side by side with our kids has been a real advantage to my wife and I here on the farm. What better way to instill life values?"
Patrick Daninger, who runs Autumnwood Farm of Forest Lake, is also a University of Minnesota grad, as is his wife, Sharlene.
His grandparents started the farm in 1902. Today, Autumnwood Foods bottles and sells its own milk -- eliminating a middle man -- to 40 local restaurants and stores.
"It's a struggle to stay in it, but there are rewards," Daninger said. "This morning, I went outside and a calf was born. It was beautiful, 65 degrees, birds singing. How many people would trade their cubicle in an office for that?"
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419