Where have all the Kane cows gone?
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org June 18, 2012 10:16PM
A cow makes her way across a field Monday near Allen Road in Hampshire. Of 759 farms found in Kane County in 2007 when the last Census of Agriculture was taken, only 14 farms still had milk cows. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
But farms still grow crops
No. of Kane County farms growing selected crops, with number of acres devoted to that and the annual production in bushels:
CORN FOR USE AS GRAIN
2007: 285 farms, 114,809 acres, 21.67 million bushels
1987: 582 farms, 94,534 acres, 13.13 million bushels
1950: 1,706 farms, 87,833 acres, 5.3 million bushels
2007: 211 farms, 46,546 acres, 2.22 million bushels
1987: 447 farms, 52,419 acres, 2.36 million bushels
1950: 324 farms, 7,705 acres, 0.19 million bushels
Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture
Updated: July 20, 2012 6:07AM
Northern Kane County and the farm animal go way back together.
When the first railroad was built westward from Chicago in 1850, its first major western terminal was Elgin, and one of its main reasons for being was to carry milk from Kane County farmers to the thirsty children of the big city. Inventor Gail Borden opened a condensed-milk canning plant in downtown Elgin to help feed Civil War soldiers.
By the 1870s, according to Kane County Farm Bureau spokesman Ryan Klassy, Elgin Township alone had at least 12,000 cows. By the 1890s, the Elgin Board of Trade set the price of butter for the entire United States.
As late as the 1960s, someone driving from Elgin to Hampshire or Itasca would pass farm after farm. And outside each barn they would see several dozen Holstein cows, grazing. Many farms also would have a small chicken house and a shed full of hogs. In 1950, 1,390 separate farms in Kane County had at least one milk cow, with a total of almost 25,000 cows.
No more. Unless you count the rising number of horses, it’s becoming rare to see any farm animals outdoors. Of 759 farms found in Kane County in 2007 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture took the last “Census of Agriculture” for which results are available, only 14 farms — one one-hundredth as many as in 1950 — still had milk cows. All of Kane County had only one-12th as many cows as Elgin Township alone had in the 1870s.
Area farms have gotten rid of most of their chickens and beef cattle, too. Hogs have held steady in number but are concentrated on fewer and fewer farms.
“It used to be that the main product of Kane County farms was meat and milk and eggs,” said Kane County Farm Bureau President Joe White. “Farmers would grow grain and hay, then feed it to livestock on their own farm. Today, the main final product is grain.”
Now Kane’s corn and soybeans are either sent to a factory to be made into biofuels and soybean oil and corn syrup, or they are shipped to another state or another country, where they are fed to livestock.
One exception to the trend is horses — although the big, muscular Belgians that used to pull plows in 1947 have been replaced by sleek quarterhorses boarded by city folk who like to go riding. The 2007 census found 3,271 horses in Kane, the third-largest number in any county in Illinois and actually twice as many horses as Kane had in 1950.
Maybe that’s because more people like to ride. But it also may be that riding stables are most easily located at the edge of the built-up metropolitan area, where the suburbs end and the countryside begins. And that edge of Metro Chicago is now us.
Why are the cows, steers and chickens disappearing?
Being only a grain farmer is certainly easier on the farmer and his wife and children. Cornstalks don’t demand to be fed and milked twice a day, 365 days a year.
But that alone can’t explain the change. It was ALWAYS easier to grow only grain than to work with animals.
Another possibility is that suburban sprawl into Kane County is cutting the number of farms. But the number of animals is dropping faster than the number of farms, and that is a statewide phenomenon. A study by Promar International found that between 1999 and 2009, the revenue from livestock activity dropped 4.5 percent in Illinois even while it was rising nationwide by 8 percent.
So the answers are likely to be found behind a dollar sign. This is time when grain prices have risen more quickly than prices for meat, milk and eggs, and where it may require a giant megafarm to make livestock profitable. Market forces are making states with perfect soil and dependable rain — such as Illinois — ideally suited to grain-growing but not to raising farm animals.
Technology has changed, too.
“In the old days, you didn’t have refrigeration and the kind of transportation we have today,” White noted. “So milk and meat had to be raised close to the cities where it was consumed. That’s not true today.”
The last cow man
The superintendent of the Kane County Fair’s dairy cattle competition got out of the dairy cattle business 24 years ago.
Ray Russell, 80, grew up taking care of cows in a family that has farmed in Plato Township (along the west-of-Elgin road named after them) for 148 years. But in 1978, Russell sold off his last 42 cows because “my knees went bad” and his only son had followed his brothers and his sister to careers in the city. For awhile, he kept a handful of miniature horses, using them for parades and children’s rides. But a few years ago he gave up even those, and now the completely livestock-free Russell farmland — rented out to younger farmers — produces only corn and soybeans.
Although the USDA found 14 dairy farms in the county in 2007, Russell thinks that has dropped to just six or seven now.
Russell thinks locals have given up cows because the price of corn and beans has gone up more quickly than the price of milk. If a farmer can get the same or more profit from selling corn and beans to an elevator as he can from feeding them to cows and selling milk, why not give up the chore of having to milk and feed the cows?
“In California, they can raise cows so much easier,” Russell said. “They don’t have our weather to contend with. They don’t have to keep their cows in barns. And the farms out there are much bigger. They can work them with large numbers of hired workers, such as Mexican immigrants.”
Retired 92-year-old Plato Center farmer Leroy Nelson recalls how he got a job at age 21 at the Plato Milk Co. in what is now the Plato Township Hall. Every morning, 100 farmers toting 8-gallon cans of milk would line up their trucks and wagons outside. Nelson and co-workers would dump these into vats, then ship the milk via tank truck to the Capitol Dairy in Chicago. But the Plato depot closed in the mid-1950s.
Eggs yes, hogs no
Even as he has rented more and more land on which to grow crops — including most of what used to be the Russell farm — Bruce and Judy Krog of Plato Township have dialed back their commitment to livestock. Their farm along Bowes Road still has 1,000 chickens laying eggs, which they market locally from places such as their back porch. But they don’t keep 50 cows the way Bruce’s father did in the 1960s. And six years ago they stopped raising 500 hogs a year.
“There was no easy place to get rid of hogs anymore,” Bruce Krog said. “Years ago we would send our hogs to Heinhold Hog Market in Maple Park. But they moved out to Ottawa, and selling the hogs got harder and harder. Meanwhile, grain prices got so high that you can make just as much by selling it as grain as you can by feeding it to a hog, without all that extra work. In 2006 we had to decide, ‘Is it worth replacing our worn-out equipment, or do we just get rid of the hogs?’ ”
In the last 60 years, Kane County’s laying-chicken inventory has plummeted from 171,000 to 3,000. And the county’s chicken-meat production has virtually disappeared. Only 192 chickens were produced for meat in 2007, coming from just four farms.
Is bigger better?
Some believe Illinois needs more megafarms — not with 40 to 100 cows like Ray Russell and Krog’s father used to have but with 3,000 like some farms in California.
Whether you’re raising dairy cows, beef cows, chickens or hogs, the more-efficient livestock farms now tend to be bigger and bigger. And a spread with hundreds upon hundreds of milk cows or beef steers — generating hundreds upon hundreds of tons of manure — is often not welcome in Illinois.
That was one conclusion by Peter Goldsmith, a University of Illinois economist who co-wrote the recent study “The Economic Impact of Illinois’s Livestock Industry.”
Kane County’s numbers may bear that out. Even as the county sees a decline in its cattle and chicken businesses — all with relatively small and unchanging numbers of animals per farm — the one area where the number of animals per farm has zoomed upward in this area — hog production — has remained healthy.
While the number of Kane farms that raise hogs plummeted from 99 to just 18 in two decades, these 18 house 10 percent more hogs and send 32 percent more to market per year than their 1987 predecessors.
In fact, these 18 remaining hog farms house two-thirds as many animals as the more than 1,000 farms that had hogs in 1950.
Goldsmith’s study found that the statewide experience parallels Kane County’s — small rises in hog production while other traditional livestock farming sags.
“Pork exports are quite strong because of our weak dollar and high-quality products,” Goldsmith said. “There has been about 10 percent growth nationally since 2000 because of the success with international exports. Here in Illinois, pork had 5 percent growth.”
But, driven by the rise of super-farms that some criticize for alleged pollution, odors and animal cruelty, other parts of the country are stealing Illinois’ production of other animals. California is now No. 1 in milk, outdoing even Wisconsin. Southern states dominate in chicken meat production. Beef increasingly comes from giant feed lots in the Great Plains and the West.
“Much of the new investment in beef packing occurs out West where cattle can be more efficiently fattened,” Goldsmith said.
“Dairy has seen new technologies emerge and new business models, such as large-scale dairy operations with 3,200 cows in a facility,” Goldsmith said. “We still struggle to site those large facilities here in Illinois. We have only one here in the state.
“Producers recently tried to site two other (very large) facilities, and they failed” because of opposition from neighbors and environmentalists, Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith thinks the solution is a change in attitude by state and local governments.