As Meat And Dairy Prices Climb, Cattle Production Goes Into High Gear

May 19, 2014
Originally published on May 31, 2014 6:33 pm

We've all heard of the Western gold rush, well how about the Northwest cattle rush? Farmers there are taking advantage of record-high prices worldwide for dairy and beef.

On the front lines of this Northwest herd expansion is your friendly artificial insemination technician. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Anna King reports.

Reporter

  • Anna King, Richland, Wash., correspondent for KPLU and Northwest News Network.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW, and if you've bought any beef recently, you know that prices are high. That is in part because of the drought in the West, and it's in part because of increasing demand from places like China not just for beef but for dairy, as well. Farmers in this country are trying to compensate by expanding their herds of cattle, and in many cases that means more work for artificial insemination technicians.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Anna King reports from southeast Washington's farm country.

ANNA KING: The next time you pour fresh milk on your morning cereal, think of guys like Dean Hibbs.

DEAN HIBBS: Let's go find them. Watch that hot wire.

KING: Lately Hibbs has been on breakneck drive to breed more cattle. Hibbs leads the way past a lineup of switching cow tails.

HIBBS: Here's our first cow, right here.

KING: He's look for cows in heat.

HIBBS: You're probably not going to put this on the radio, but...

KING: Hibbs is threading a small cylinder with semen into the cow to impregnate her.

HIBBS: Piece of cake, done deal.

KING: It looks like you've done this a time or two, Dean.

HIBBS: Thousands and thousands and thousands. These are my girls. I made them.

KING: Hibbs has been pulling long hours for weeks. 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 middle class and insatiable demand for dairy and beef is jacking up demand even further.

HIBBS: Twenty-six dollars for a hundredweight of milk is incredibly high. We've never seen it, ever. No, the dairymen have never had this price, this milk price. You know, and it's a great thing because they have lost money continuously for the last 10 years, you know, so they can build some equity.

KING: 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.

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.

KING: With all this milk and beef shortage, Hibbs says he's breeding whole new herds now.

HIBBS: OK, so I code her on 15 different traits.

KING: Hibbs walks around a large concrete pen of dairy cattle looking for cows he will breed soon. He creates an online profile of sorts.

HIBBS: The first trait is stature, how tall she is. She's just, yeah, she's just, she's a little short. I'm going to dock her for that. Dairy, thinness of bone, thinness of thigh.

KING: Some cows score pretty high, like an eight or a nine out of 10. Others...

HIBBS: A three for - she's not dairy, and she's not strong.

KING: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS)

KING: Pointing down at a still-wet, shivering calf, he grins.

JOSE JIMENES: Yeah, little bull calf. Money in the pocket.

KING: Right now, little bulls like this are like gold on four wobbly legs. This crossbred little guy is worth about $260, more than twice the price he would have brought last year. 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 going broke. To be in this business...

HIBBS: You've got to have some grit.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS)

KING: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Anna King outside of Sunnyside, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.