October 20, 2013

Maine dairy farmer sees his future in beef

An Oakhurt Dairy supplier in Fairfield sells most of his herd at auction and plans to start anew with cattle.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — As the number of dairy farms in Maine continues to dwindle, one farmer is trading his milking cows for beef-laden steers.

click image to enlarge

Auctioneer Toby Lussier, left, of Northeast Kingdom Sales sells the Dostie farm’s dairy cattle Wednesday in Fairfield.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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