High Milk And Beef Prices Spur A Northwest Cattle Rush
By Anna King
We’ve all heard of the Western Gold Rush … well how about the Northwest cattle rush? Farmers in our region are taking advantage of record prices worldwide for dairy and beef. On the front lines of this Northwest herd expansion is your friendly artificial insemination technician.
When you douse milk on your morning cereal -- think of guys like Dean Hibbs.
Dean Hibbs: “Let’s go find ‘em. Watch that hotwire.”
Lately Hibbs has been on break-neck drive to breed more cattle – he hasn’t had a day off in weeks. He says cows in heat wait for no man. Hibbs leads the way past a lineup of switching cow tails. He’s looking for the hot cows – the ones in heat.
Dean Hibbs: “So then I’ll put my hand in her rectum. You’re probably not going to put this on the radio. And then the tricky part is threading the AI gun through her cervix. You have to get it past the cervix. And then deposit it in her uterus. Piece of cake. Done deal.”
Anna King: “Looks like you’ve done this a time or two Dean.”
Dean Hibbs: “Thousands and thousands and thousands. These are my girls. I made them.”
Hibbs is working some dangerous, long weekends. The reasons for this extra business is close to home and – on the other side of the world. Here in the U.S.A., strong demand for cheese smothered pizza and Greek yogurt is increasing demand for dairy. While thousands of miles away, China’s growing middleclass and insatiable demand for dairy and beef is jacking up demand even further.
Dean Hibbs: “Twenty-six dollars for a hundredweight of milk, is incredibly high we’ve never seen it ever. The dairymen have never had this milk price. And it’s a great thing, they’ve lost money continuously for the last 10 years, so they can build some equity.”
But, he adds it’s not all good. Another reason for the increased demand is the misfortune of his neighbors to the south. Drought in California and Texas means farmers there are reducing their herds, or going broke.
Photo: Miguel Galvez, 21, attaches “claws” or automatic milkers to cow udders at a dairy in Sunnyside, Wash. Many Northwest workers like Galvez are being asked to milk more cows per hour for the same pay, despite higher prices for milk. Credit Anna King.
Dean Hibbs: “Yes it’s good for us, but unfortunately what’s good for us has been bad for some other people and that bothers me.”
With all this milk and beef shortage … Hibbs says he’s breeding herds now that he’s never bred before. All the romance happens right here. Hibbs walks around a large concrete pen of dairy cattle. He creates an online profile of sorts ...
Dean Hibbs: “… first trait is stature how tall she is, she’s a little short, I’m going to dock her for that…. ”
Some cows score pretty high like an 8 or 9 out of 10, others … Well let’s just say it doesn’t sound very scientific.
Dean Hibbs: “She’s weird. She’s just weird. She’s weird, she’s just weird.”
A big-boned Holstein turns her gaze back at Hibbs regarding him past her roundish rump.
Anna King: “Don’t take it personally, Bessie.”
Dean Hibbs: “Three for dairy. She’s not dairy and she’s not strong.”
All of these numbers will be run through a computer full of pedigrees and stats – then she’ll be matched with a bull from Ohio. It’s internet dating for cattle. The hope is the pair will throw the best possible female calf. That calf will be delivered by someone like Jose Jimenes. He’s the herdsman of this dairy outside of Pasco. He leads me to a large shed. Pointing down at a still-wet, shivering calf, he grins.
Jose Jimenes: “Yeah, little bull calf. Money in the pocket.”
Anna King: “Oh he’s cold.”
Jose Jimenes: “Yeah, he’s got pretty cold.”
Right now little bulls like this are like gold on four wobbly legs. This crossbred little guy is worth about 260-dollars – more than twice the price he would have brought last year. But it turns out, not everyone is sharing in profits of this cattle rush. Francisco Carrillo is another herdsman at a dairy farm about fifty miles down the road.
Francisco Carrillo: “ … for the laborers it might not be that good. ‘Cause they have to milk more cows for the same amount of money.”
Still, farmers say the extra money is going to pay back loans, buy newer equipment and stuff cash into savings. And they say they have to consider the uncertain future. For example, if China decides to quit American milk – that huge surplus might be dumped on the U.S. market. Dean Hibbs says many farmers are just a few bad years away from broke. To be in this business …
Dean Hibbs: “You got to have some grit.”