- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

MT. VERNON, Mo. (AP) - Ten years ago, Mike Meier, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, was about to call it quits. Workdays at his Monett farm were long and tiring, and he wasn’t making much money.

Then his friend Tony Rickard, a regional dairy specialist who worked at the Southwest Research Center, told him about a pasture-based dairy operation there: 98 well-manicured acres, grazed and fertilized by 85 content, productive dairy cows, the Columbia Missourian (https://bit.ly/29tyhC4 ) reports.

The dairy operation, which opened in 1999, inspired many farmers to switch to pasture-based farming, where cows roam and graze on pasture rather than being confined and living on mostly dry feed.

Meier decided to give it a try - one last experiment before retiring.

Meier’s father, who’d been a confinement dairy farmer, was skeptical.

“Do you really think this is going to work?” Meier’s father asked Rickard.

Rickard said, “Yeah, he will do better than ever.”

Mike Meier sold his machinery, which he calls the “heavy metal,” and converted his dairy with Rickard’s help.

The operation thrived. With conventional dairy farming, he’d needed to give his cows 55 pounds of feed every day to produce 75 pounds of milk. With pasture-based dairy farming, his cows produce the same amount of milk on 10 pounds of feed in addition to grazing.

Meier’s father was amazed. Meier couldn’t believe he was making money and working less.

He wasn’t alone among area farmers in discovering that a pasture-based dairy operation has economic, social and environmental benefits. The designer of the pasture-based dairy operation, Ron Young, said that during his time at the research farm, he helped create over 100 pasture-based dairy farms in southwest Missouri.

“The university rarely has a program that was this successful,” Craig Roberts, a state forage specialist, said.

The dairy operation became a hub for local dairy farmers, a place to exchange ideas and experiment with cross-breeding cows and different types of grass. Throughout the year, local farmers met up for pasture walks, going farm to farm learning new styles of dairying.

So in April 2015 when the Southwest Research Center announced it was ending - or “refocusing” - its pasture dairy experiment, Meier and other farmers who had looked to the Center for ideas, collaboration and support on their own farms were more than surprised. It made no sense to them.

They didn’t know that an administrative assistant named Carla Rathmann, a friendly woman they’d met at events at the center, had contributed enormously to the pasture dairy’s demise. A recent internal audit investigation of the Southwest Research Center showed she embezzled more than $743,000 in university funds over a 15-year period, which contributed to the Center’s total deficit of $1,012,629.

Rathmann pleaded guilty to one count each of mail fraud and credit card fraud on June 6 after a federal grand jury investigation that found she’d embezzled $716,665 over nine years.

“They ripped off our research farm. (I’m) really upset with it,” Meier said.

The idea

In the 1990s, Missouri lost more than one third of its dairies. There were 2,700 dairy farms in the state in 1993 and just 1,700 in 2000.

That, in part, inspired Rickard and Stacey Hamilton, a state dairy specialist, to do something about the decline. They thought a new pasture-based model would help, so they decided to convert part of the Southwest Research Center to a pasture-based dairy.

They approached the dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the time, Roger Mitchell, and discussed the potential impact a pasture-based dairy at the Center could have.

Mitchell approved the concept and agreed to provide $20,000 and pay part of the labor the first two years - “seed money.”

The group also solicited funds from dairy agri-businesses and individual producers.

Once they had what they needed, they began construction in 1998. The dairy operation was launched, and milking began in 1999.

University Extension funded the educational side of the research center to help study and collect data from the dairy operation. Roberts, Rickard and Hamilton were a part of that team.

In 2006, the research farm hosted the first Missouri Dairy Grazing Conference for farmers to share their knowledge about pasture-based farming and new research. The conference attracted 200 people from 21 states, Ireland and New Zealand. So many people showed up that the conference had to hold some sessions at the National Guard Armory in Monett.

The dairy operation influenced at least one company to move to southwest Missouri: New Zealand-based Grassland Consultants, an international grazing dairy operation. The dairy owns 7,000 cows in the state, accounting for 8 percent of Missouri’s dairy cows.

The growth of pasture-based dairies slowed the decline in the number of dairy cows, according to an MU Extension report. In 2011 there were 95,000 cows in the state, and in 2013 there were 92,000 cows - 25,000 of them pasture-based cows.

The number declined in 2015 to 88,000 cows, according to the Missouri Dairy Industry Revitalization Study published by MU Extension in January 2015.

Although the number of dairy cows is still falling in Missouri, every dollar of milk sales in Missouri contributes $3.12 to Missouri’s economy, according to the 2014 Extension report. From 2005 to 2014 the growth of new dairies created $100 million in new investment, $40 million in annual milk sales and 1,110 jobs, according to the report.

The glowing Extension report was from 2014. The Southwest Research Center’s dairy operation closed the next year.

The closing

In April 2015, local newspapers reported that the dairy operation was switching its focus, one that didn’t include dairy cows. They based the news on a release from the Southwest Missouri News, an MU Extension publication: “Pasture-based dairy program at Southwest Research Center accomplishes goals, will refocus research efforts.”

The news didn’t make sense to farmers in the area.

When Meier heard of the closure, he called the dean of MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Thomas Payne. He told Payne he couldn’t understand why the pasture dairy was closing.

Payne decided to make the trip to Mt. Vernon, where he met with 20 local dairy farmers. Meier was there. He recalled that the farmers expressed dismay over the pasture dairy’s closing. Payne listened, but it was a done deal.

Bernie Van Dalfsen, a pasture-based dairy farmer from Reeds, 22 miles west of Mt. Vernon, recalled Payne blaming the closing on employment issues and financial losses, which seemed vague to Van Dalfsen.

It bothered him that the farmers hadn’t had a chance to voice their concerns, that the decision had already been made.

“Where did it all of a sudden go wrong?” Van Dalfsen said.

A key factor

It was David Cope, hired as the Center’s superintendent in July 2014, who discovered the financial irregularities. Cope has a banking background and didn’t think the operation should be losing so much money. He became suspicious about those losses in March 2015, according to previous Missourian reporting.

According to the June audit of the Center, the last year that the dairy was in operation, 2014, it accounted for about one half of the Center’s total deficit of $1,012,629. So, the dairy’s deficit was $468,784, and the general operations ran a deficit of $543,845. The “successful” dairy operation’s deficit didn’t add up.

Rickard said that with research, deficits aren’t unusual. So it wasn’t a surprise that the dairy operation was running a deficit. It was the amount of the deficit that was confusing, particularly because the dairy operation was at or below the level of other pasture-based dairy operations, he said.

“Our dairy was doing economically well. We (Hamilton and Rickard) really didn’t understand how it could be losing that much money,” Rickard said. “We were a little perplexed why they were saying that we were losing more money than we thought we were.”

Rickard recalled one of the few instances that he saw the dairy’s expenses. He saw a cordless drill billed as a dairy expense - a drill that Rickard never saw. It made him wonder what other expenses were being attributed to the dairy.

But he didn’t have access to the Center’s books. He had to take her at her word when Rathmann said the research farm was losing money.

“We didn’t have access to all that information from the Center. There was nobody for us to argue with,” Rickard said. “In retrospect, now that everything has come out, even though I didn’t see the numbers, it was obvious that we weren’t losing money. It was something else.”

Cope cited other factors in the pasture dairy’s demise. For example, the dairy’s connection to MU meant that it had to adhere to certain labor rules that a privately owned farm wouldn’t have to follow. There also were maintenance issues.

Former research farm manager Steve Stamate, who said he had experience at 10 dairy farms, said the Center’s milking barn was the worst he’d ever worked in.

“It was alright for a prototype, but it’s not what it should be,” Stamate said.

For example, the feeders, drains, platforms - even the slope of the floors - were incorrectly designed, he said. Those flaws made the barn hard to keep clean.

It bothered him that the barn was presented as a “model.”

“This is what we started with, and then go to Bernie Van Dalfsen or someone else’s (barn), and look at their barn because it was an evolution-type thing, and it got better and better,” Stamate said.

Rickard said these complaints are new to him. He retired in 2014 and never had an issue with the maintenance.

“I respect their opinion, but (when I was there) two years ago, no one told me we ever had an issue in there,” Rickard said. “I am sure there are always maintenance issues, but no different than that of anyone else’s house.”

Rickard said the maintenance issues would have cost no more than a couple thousand dollars to address and certainly didn’t explain the deficit.

Cope said the closure seemed to be the most appropriate course with the information known at the time. By all accounts, he said, the dairy was an “overwhelming success,” but it had served its purpose.

Reactions and repercussions

Farmers and researchers say the pasture dairy brought farmers together around an idea and was a center of community.

“We got to interact with each other and discuss what works for us and the center and each other,” Van Dalfsen said.

It was also a way for farmers to test different types of grass, artificial insemination breeding and other ideas of potential benefits to farmers in the area. The research allowed farmers to experiment on a smaller herd of cows without putting their own milk production at risk.

Van Dalfsen said he misses that sense of community with other farmers.

“We are now off in our own little world,” he said. “It’s a lot easier when you can work together as a team. Because of that, we don’t get together as we once did.”

The closest grazing dairy research is now in North Carolina, he said. But the difference in climates and soil means that research isn’t beneficial to Missouri farmers.

“What applies to North Carolina doesn’t apply here,” Van Dalfsen said.

Meier also sees it as a loss for would-be farmers, including his own children.

“Had that research farm not been there, I probably wouldn’t be milking cows today,” Meier said. “With it being closed, you may not have some new farmers to start up grass-based dairies because the information is not available now.”

Through pasture-based farming, Meier said he will able to retire sooner - 2020, probably. But it’s too late to persuade his sons. He will be the last of a line of dairy farmers.

Farmers get more time to spend with their families when cows are grazing. Children of farmers are more likely to continue dairy farms because of the higher quality of life pasture-based dairies offer, Roberts said.

Meier agrees with that.

“If we were doing grass-based dairy when the kids were growing up, they might have had a different attitude toward it because conventional (farming) is a lot of labor and not much return on investment,” he said. “They may have wanted to stay.”

___

Information from: Columbia Missourian, https://www.columbiamissourian.com

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