By Colleen Creamer
For The Dickson Herald
Cattle farming in Dickson County might be a dying breed. Old timers are fast bowing out with no younger generations willing to replace them. Drought conditions have added stress to already going concerns marking this the third year of decline in three consecutive years.
Two weeks ago, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture released numbers on cattle in the state of Tennessee, which dropped 4 percent in 2012 as compared with a national decrease of 2 percent. As well, numbers of cattle are down 7 percent below last year’s inventory—the lowest in over 50 years.
The decline in Dickson County matches the recent statewide trend according to local farmers. It’s unclear whether the decline is solely related to generational choices or long-term drought conditions or a combination of both.
Paul Sullivan, who is manager of the Dickson Farmer’s Co-op, which markets goods and services to local farmers, said some farmers thinned their herds when drought conditions became chronic.
“It started that year when we had such a bad drought; I think it was three or four years ago when people got rid of them due to drought conditions” Sullivan said.
In 2008, then Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen requested a federal designation of agricultural disaster for 39 counties, including Dickson County, because of crop and livestock losses.
“People that had to get rid of their cows because they couldn’t get hay; they brought hay up here from Texas … Dickson County’s cattle dropped down big time because of that reason, and then you’ve got most of the population of the cattle was the older farmers and that gave them reason to get out,” Sullivan said.
The information released two weeks ago by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is based on a recent survey by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which counts the total number of cattle and calves in Tennessee as of Jan 1.
The drought of a few years ago does seem to be where the numbers began to fall, according to state Agriculture Department Director Debra Kenerson. In a press release, Kenerson said that last year Tennessee farmers liquidated some of their herds due to drought conditions.
Though Tennessee is not a large beef producer like Texas, it ranks ninth in the nation in beef cow numbers and 15th in total cattle, according to UT’s Department of Animal Science.
Local cattle farmer Phil Dawson said he believes another primary cause was the age of farmers. Dawson is a member of the Dickson Farmer’s Co-op Board.
“I’m 52 now and I am by far one of the younger ones,” Dawson said. “Three or four that are 30 or so but for the most part people my age are sort of the last wave of farmers.”
Sullivan described the decline as simple supply and demand.
“The price goes up so high so they want to get rid of them for that reason,” Sullivan said. “So you get hit twice for the worst and then for the best.
“If a person right now is getting out of the cattle business, it’s because they are tired of it and they feel like it’s a good time because prices are so high and they (farmers) are so old, they can’t mess with them anymore,” Sullivan added. “Most of our people who’ve had cattle for so long are elderly now and are not able to handle them.”
Dawson said, though Dickson County is not a major beef generator, a chronic decline in cattle farming translates to lost revenue in ancillary goods.
“That could cut a lot of tax dollars throughout the county as far as what they (farmers) would buy as far as Walmart, Kroger and things like that and in overall fuel consumption,” Dawson said.
He said the co-op sales were about $11 million last year, adding that most of it was likely farmer driven.
“So when you start shutting down revenues because the farmers are leaving then that takes away from the Co-op; that takes away from Tractor Supply and other equipment places because there’s no longer a need for it and that is how it could be devastating for a county,” Dawson said.
Another problem with farming in general in Dickson County, as well as across the state and across the country, are costs associated with getting into farming on a ground level.
“When you look at equipment and fertilizer and supplies and things like that, they just keep going out the roof,” Dawson said.
Tom Womack, director of Public Affairs for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, said it was true that getting into farming as a sole enterprise was difficult.
“Here’s our perspective from the Department of Agriculture,” Womack said. “Certainly declining farm numbers or number of farmers may have some impact; there is no denying that. It’s a very tough business to get into unless you are taking over a farming operation from an older generation in the family. It is hard for new farmers to get into if they are not somehow already connected into or already part of the family farming operation.”
Womack agreed that drought conditions were a part of the decline but thinks that it’s part of the normal expansion and reduction of farming.
“What we are seeing with the decline in cattle within the last few years has certainly been due to higher feed prices and the fact that farmers have been cutting back on the herds in order to lower their input costs; that’s a natural pull back just like it would occur in any other industry,” said Womack. “Certainly the drought that we had last year only intensified that trend, but in Tennessee we are very blessed because typically you don’t have to feed cattle in the spring, summer and fall months but when you are having to feed them hay in the middle of summer when you normally reserve that for winter use then suddenly you are looking at having to buy.”