The April 2018 Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) Quota Exchange almost set a record, but not a good one. As usual, the online release listed all the pertinent figures, total quota bid for (11,753.81 kg), number of farmers looking to buy quota (827), the total amount of quota offered for sale (1,037.00 kg.) and the total number of farmers looking to sell (92). The available amount is prorated across all buyers, ensuring everyone gets a bit.
But farther down the page came the surprise. Of those 92 dairymen, 18 threw in the towel, sold all their quota and exited the industry. Not quite a record number getting out, but almost. In December 2016, a total of 29 farmers sold all their quota. In November 2016, 21 called it quits and 20 exited in September 2016. In total, 141 quit the business that year.
The DFO publishes the total number of farms selling milk in the system in the monthly Milk Producer magazine, comparing it to the previous year’s total.
For reasons unknown, I kept random reports over the past years and the oldest page I have is for August, 2007 at which time 4,533 farmers sold milk. Since then between two and 14 left each month. If my memory serves me correctly, when we started milking in 1983, the number was between 12,000 and 13,000 dairy farmers in Ontario shipping milk and/or farm separated cream. What a come down.
As said, in 2016, 141 Ontario dairy farmers exited the system with 5 new entrants coming in under the NEQAP (New Entrant Quota Assistance Program) and 11 new producers buying quota.
In 2017, 96 fellow dairymen called it quits while 8 started up under the NEQAP and 12 new producers bought quota. During this time, there was a push for new dairies to bolster the organic sector.
The April 2018 issue of Milk Producer reports a total of 3,564 producers shipping milk in February 2018. Using figures from the February exchange (transactions effective March 1), 5 left, 1 NEQAP and 1 new producer started. In March (effective April 1), 6 exited, 1 NEQAP and 1 new producer started. Then in April (effective May 1), 18 quit plus 1 NEQAP and 1 new producer began for a total of 3,541 farmers still shipping milk on May 1, 2018.
Some contend it is the aging of dairy farmers and the reluctance of younger farmers to be tied down which makes them leave, but this does not explain the number of new (5 to 8 years old) freestall barns with parlours or even robots set up for 50 to 110 cows currently for sale in western Ontario. Real estate agents say you would have a choice of barn too! One thing they all have in common — insufficient land to supply a dairy herd of that size. Obviously, the owner has not given up farming, just the commodity.
More likely, it is the ever increasing rules and regulations instigated by the DFO and Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) that are driving farmers to abandon generations old farms and modern barns. The introduction of the Canadian Quality Milk Program (CQM) saw a huge exodus of Ontario dairies as farmers refused to burden themselves with the mandatory courses, record keeping, inspections and countless Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for almost every mundane task in the barn.
Now, with CQM expanded into the proAction program with even more courses, record keeping, inspections and SOPs for every barn job they forgot before, more are leaving. Next, add the pending biosecurity, environmental, herbicide, pesticide and manure management components, and even more will exit. Those that do stay will readily admit that the DFO and DFC are doing little to improve the dairy industry other than to increase the holding capacity of their own offices.
Where the downward spiral will eventually end is any one’s guess. 3,000 dairies? 2,500? 2,000? Even less? Currently, the existing farms are still filling the Ontario requirements — maybe even filling too much — but eventually might it be necessary to import non-compliant American milk just to meet our own demands? It is a scary thought.
Angela Dorie is an agricultural writer and a Jersey farmer near Cornwall.