Joe Mathews: Feeling the competition down on the farm

I am a California dairy cow. Mmmm-oo.

Surprised to hear from me? In normal times, I wouldn’t be inclined to cooperate with the anthropomorphic scheme of a writer desperate for a mid-summer column.

But today so much is being said about agriculture here in the Central Valley, and dairies in particular, that I felt the need to – pardon the pun – milk the moment. Too many of you city slickers have the wrong impression of the cows you pass along Interstate 5 or Highway 99.

In the stories and headlines, we cows are usually invoked as symbols of the past, the epitome of a traditional way of life. And so the stories say we’re threatened by whatever is the news or political preoccupation of the day – regulation, taxes, cheap food, the environment. Sometimes cows and dairies are portrayed as victims, unable to flee this dysfunctional state for greener pastures, like other businesses have. Or we cows are seen as victimizers, part of a water-guzzling agricultural industry that is getting its comeuppance with this drought.

Most of these narratives, I can assure you, are just so much manure. The truth is, if you got to know me, you’d realize that I’m a lot like you, my fellow Californians. And no, I am not just saying that because there is some of me inside you if you drink milk or eat cheesy pizza.

What I am saying is that we all feel a little like cattle these days. Like all my fellow Californians, my life is being reshaped by technology. Like most of you, I am working and producing more than ever before. But, just like for you, my day-to-day remains a struggle, and I don’t have a clear sense of what the future holds for me, or my descendants.

The story of my California probably sounds a lot like yours. We’re still the No. 1 state in dairy (as we are in so many other things), producing nearly 5 billion gallons of milk annually. But California’s continued leadership among cows is not assured. The end of the last decade was brutal for us, much as it was for you with that housing crisis and recession. Milk prices dropped as the cost of feed soared, and dairymen got hurt. Since 2007, California has lost about a quarter of its dairies.

Some dairies actually left the state. That may sound strange – how can you pick up and move a farm? – but it’s quite common. More than a generation ago, Southern California’s Inland Empire was full of dairies, but they relocated to the San Joaquin Valley, where land was cheaper. Today, states like Utah, Colorado and South Dakota are seeking to lure our dairies with promises of cheaper land and less regulation.

In other words, there’s competition in the corral, and the only constant is change. Just as you probably have to do more with less in your office, today’s economics require dairies to produce more with fewer cows. That’s been good for me in some ways. It’s more important than ever for me to live comfortably so I give more milk. I now enjoy special fans and water sprays that keep me cool in the summer; flat, dry and fluffy bedding; and more freedom to exercise and socialize with my herd mates. The medical care I get is better than some humans’ – and I don’t have to deal with the Covered California website or phone line.

But the pace of life in today’s dairies has sped up. We’re having babies at 24 months old. And then there’s sexed semen. You read that right – semen has been modified so dairymen can produce more female (milk-producing) cows. Younger, fresher animals mean that a dairy makes more milk today with 700 cows than it used to make with 1,000 cows. The downside: It’s like being a billionaire’s wife – there always are younger females around ready to take your place.

Cows typically have five years before they leave the dairy; the rumor is we then become meat for human consumption, but I prefer not to think about it.

California cows have been so productive that recently there’s talk of a state comeback in dairy. Milk prices are up as overseas demand for dairy products increases and our cow competitors in New Zealand struggle. But the comeback feels tentative.

There is also the problem of all those nuts out there. If you’ve been in the Central Valley lately, you can see almonds (as well as pistachios and walnuts) taking up more and more acres that once belonged to cows and our feed. With the drought taking land out of cultivation, there’s even less space for us.

But you won’t hear me complain. California cows live by the same rule that the boys in Silicon Valley are always citing: adapt or die. So you can whine about all the change in the state until the cows come home, but that doesn’t mean we’ll listen.