FAIRFIELD — As the number of dairy farms in Maine continues to dwindle, one farmer is trading his milking cows for beef-laden steers.
Egide Dostie, 68, an Oakhurst Dairy supplier who has kept a herd for more than 40 years, said an increase in large farming conglomerates have hurt Maine’s dairy farmers, who can’t scale up as easily as farmers in states with more wide-open spaces.
When he and his 43-year-old son and business partner, Egide Dostie II, look at the cattle industry landscape, they see a way forward for the cattle farmer.
“The future in beef looks good in the state of Maine,” he said.
The number of dairy farms in Maine has decreased to fewer than 300, from about 600 20 years ago.
Dostie had been planning to close his dairy operations since May.
“Our barns are getting worn out,” Dostie said. “Our milking equipment is all worn out. In this business, there’s no money left to reinvest.”
The end of the Dostie dairy operation was official Wednesday, when the livestock was sold in a traditional auction, a major life event in a farming community.
Dostie remembers one from 1971, when his father sold his own herd of cattle. Since then, Dostie has gone to many as a purchaser.
AT THE AUCTION
On Wednesday, about 50 farmers gathered on Dostie’s farm. They sat on folding chairs beneath a tent, their plaid shirts and overalls giving them ample protection from the crisp fall air.
They were there to buy cows, but their sober, respectful attitudes showed their sympathy for Dostie.
“It really stinks to see someone finishing for good,” said Unc Brock, a burly farmer who has a couple of hundred dairy cows at his own farm in Schagh- ticoke, N.Y., about 350 miles away.
Next to the tent, in a dairy barn full of animals, the Dosties and their employees ushered each cow through a series of paths lined with metal gates and into a pen beneath the tent.
The farmers, quiet but attentive, watched with appraising eyes as each cow was displayed by employees of Northeast Kingston Sales, a Vermont-based auction company.
“Everybody in Maine, a lot of them didn’t have any money,” Dostie said, “and this auctioneer was able to bring up some Pennsylvania people that are expanding, so that helped a lot.”
The auction itself was a blend of hard work and showmanship, as the head auctioneer tried to get the highest price from farmers who wanted to pay the lowest one.
Wearing a red silk jacket advertising his company, Toby Lussier, the head auctioneer, spoke in a deep voice, announcing each cow’s number and any relevant information that might make it more salable.
As he called for bids, his speech disintegrated into a rapid-fire blur of incoherent syllables, in which only the prices could be understood.
When the last cow was bought and paid for, Dostie, who said he was happy with the amount raised, officially had left the ranks of Maine dairy farmers.
DAIRY BUSINESS CURDLING
The industry has changed since Dostie first went into dairy farming in 1972. He put in long hours – he estimates 11 a day – but there is more machinery and less physical labor these days.
The price of grain from the Midwest to feed the cows has soared in recent years.
It used to be about $200 per ton, Dostie said, but crop failures from droughts drove the price up to $430 a ton during the winter.
“Our grain bill on this farm was $10,000 a week,” he said. “It was costing us half, about half of the milk check for this grain.”
By the time he paid for labor, machinery upkeep and chemicals to keep everything clean, he said, “there was just nothing left.
“You only have so many acres. It takes about an acre for every head of cattle. You can’t grow to 2,000 or 4,000 head.”
A chapter of his life is ending, but Dostie, a practical man, feels only limited sentimentality for the cows that are gone.
“I had one that followed me around the barn, real friendly,” he said. “I’ll miss her.”
While the Dosties have sold off their dairy cows, they see a new beginning for their family farm.
Dostie plans to “semi-retire,” focusing on the farm’s other products, which include a maple sugaring operation.
But the next generation’s fortunes, overseen largely by his son, will be tied up in that other major cattle product: beef.
The Dosties are not the only new beef cattle farmers in Maine.
Between 2002 and 2007, the number of beef cattle farms in Maine increased from about 1,100 farms to about 1,300, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The same Midwestern drought that drove up the cost of grain also drove up the cost of beef, making for some eye-catching prices.
Dostie is drawn by the idea that he wouldn’t be dependent on Midwestern grain prices, planning instead to feed his cattle grass and corn silage he grows himself.
But there are signs that the beef industry is not as robust as it was a few decades ago, with more consumers turning to poultry. In 1985, the average person ate 79.2 pounds of beef; but in 2009, the most recent year on record, the average was down to 61.1 pounds, according to USDA numbers cited by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The Dosties could do well, but not if their business plan relies on the price of beef to remain sky-high, according to Dennis and Sarah Wilk, who have owned their own beef operation, King and I Angus, in nearby Industry for 13 years.
Beef that they usually sell for as little as $1 per pound is selling for $1.50, Dennis Wilk said.
Wilk, who served as the president of the Maine Angus Association from 2008 to 2012, said the high beef prices will last only as long as the demand outstrips the unusually limited supply.
“The number of live cattle is at an all-time low, probably in the last 50 or 60 years,” he said. “Those farms are going to start restocking, and within two years you’ll see beef prices going the other way.”
Wilk said the state’s beef industry has the potential to grow, but only for farmers with a sound plan.
Smaller operations can never undercut the lowest prices of the enormous farms of the Midwest, he said, but they can find niches that support something a little different. Few people differentiate between one glass of whole milk and the next, he said, but everyone has an idea about what the perfect steak tastes like.
For Wilk, the keys to success have included breeding and caring for high-quality animals and selling at the high end of the market, to people who appreciate a high-quality product. His sales include directly to consumers at five farmers markets.
At the Dostie farm, the cattle barn is not empty.
“We didn’t sell our heifers,” Dostie said. “We kept all of our young stock.”
Those animals will be the nucleus of a new herd of cattle, one that will soon be enriched by new acquisitions. The animals in the new herd will be raised to grow fat as quickly as possible.
Most beef cattle owners use breeds that have been specially bred to the purpose but Dostie is sticking with his Holsteins, a dairy breed, even though they don’t fatten up as quickly. Because male Holstein calves have little value to dairy farmers, he said, he can buy them at a lower price than an Angus steer. He has consulted with veterinarians to develop a feeding schedule – it boils down to giving them more corn silage near the end of their growing cycle – that he said will fatten them up adequately.
When Dostie is ready, it will be time for him to go to some other auction, at some other New England farm, where he will take on the role of bidder once again.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: