Nevada dairy farmers face high feed costs due to drought

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Nevada dairy farmers face high feed costs due to drought

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Isidro Alves, the owner of Sand Hill Dairy in Fallon.

Last week, we explored how ongoing drought conditions are affecting farmers in Northern Nevada like Rick Lattin of Lattin Farms. With less water to go around, there will be smaller harvests and lower profits. Click here for that story.

This story examines how growing less cattle feed in the region will affect dairy farmers like Isidro Alves, the owner of Sand Hill Dairy in Fallon. 

“Those cows are getting milked there now," Alves says as he points to a line of cows in their stalls, "and the milk goes in through that receiver there and then it’s pumped across into our bulk tank.” 

Alves says milking his 400 cows every day takes about 18 hours, and during that time, the herd produces thousands of gallons of milk. Each cow also consumes about 50 pounds of dry feed a day. More than half of Alves’ total operating budget is spent on providing that nutritious feed, an expense that fluctuates depending on factors like whether or not there’s a drought.

“We’re price-takers, not price-setters," he explains. "We have to pay what the market is for our feed, which is the biggest cost for our dairy operation. We have to receive what the market is going to take for our product.”

Because of the ongoing drought, Alves decided to downsize his herd by 20%, or a hundred cows, last month so he wouldn’t lose money feeding the low producers. Right now, farmers are only receiving half of the water allotment they would get in a good year, and Alves knows that less water means fewer crops used for silage like corn, alfalfa, and hay will be grown locally, ultimately driving the demand—and cost—up.

“The problem is there’s going to be less supply for us to draw from as far as total feed that’s being grown and available," Alves explains. "With the lack of water on the rangelands, the cattle farmers will have to take their cattle off and feed them dry hay, which takes away from the supply that’s available to us, so that’s going to drive the demand higher.”

The Truckee-Carson Irrigation District is also predicting that the water supply will run out by July, when in better years it could last through November.

Beau Uriona, a hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, says this year’s snowpack has certainly contributed to low reservoir levels but there’s a compounded effect involved as well:

“This is our third year of sustained drought, but really if you look at the overall picture, we’ve been in about a decade of drought," Uriona says. "For the most part in the last ten years we haven’t really seen the good years that build up good carryover in the reservoirs.”

Back at Sand Hill Dairy, Alves steps outside a series of milking stalls to a pen of Holstein cows, munching away on their feed as dozens of birds circle overhead. 

Even with a promising outlook on consumer demand for milk, Alves is bracing for a tough year.

“We’re looking at some high milk prices for this year because there’s such an international demand for dairy products right now, so what’s going to happen," he says, "is that a year that we could finally get ahead a little bit is probably going to set us behind a little bit because of the feed."

But farmers are survivors, Alves says, and not only that—they’re innovators.

During the last several dry years, Alves has actually expanded his offerings to include cream-top bottled milk, and he was the first dairy farmer in the state to make fresh cheese. Despite this year’s setbacks, he plans to continue growing both of his new product lines.