COX’S CREEK, Ky. – Robert Lutz thumbs through a book filled with signatures and recalls the travelers who have visited from across the globe to learn about dairy farming. The walls in his office are covered in photos of dams that represent eight generations of quality, registered Holstein genetics.
“We haven’t bought a cow since 1978,” he says, then tells how experts at the University of Kentucky and Alltech would send visitors to his farm.
“We’re not a commercial herd; it’s a family farm,” his son, Brian, adds.
The Lutz dairy was one of six on the eight-mile stretch of Fairfield Road in Nelson County when it started. Now, it’s the last of its kind, and the three-generation operation may soon close its doors.
Robert, or Bobby to some, his son, Brian, and Brian’s son, Dillon, make up the entire labor force for the farm. There is no outside, hired labor. The Cox’s Creek dairy farm is truly a family farm, one that Brian had hoped to continue and hand down to some of his four sons.
When the Lutz family got a letter from Dean Foods stating they would no longer have a market, Brian said it was like “a shot in the gut.”
“This is what I always knew I wanted to do, even in school. I fed before I went to school and I fed when I got home,” Brian recalls. “It’s all I’ve ever done.”
Originally, Dean notified around 100 producers they would lose their contract at the end of May. Later, they extended the deadline to the end of June. There is speculation of another extension, but some dairy owners have opted to sell their cattle now, a move they believe is inevitable.
When the announcement came in late February, 19 Kentucky dairy farms were affected. Within a short time, that number dwindled to 14. Today, several producers are in various stages of dispersing their herds.
Warren Cheek and Robert’s brother, William, two other dairy farmers in Cox’s Creek, sold their cattle during the past couple of weeks. Cheek has a buyer and expects cattle to be hauled soon. William’s cattle are gone.
Nelson County has always been in the top five when it came to milk production in Kentucky. Thirty years ago, Nelson County dairy farmers produced more than 94 million pounds of milk annually. Now, if Robert Lutz closes his doors, there will be two dairy farms remaining in Nelson County.
For some dairy farmers, the loss of a market just helped speed up their decision to quit the business.
William Lutz, who is 77, said he was ready to retire after 50 years.
“My grandson wanted to milk, but I told him you can’t make a living milking seven days a week. There’s no money there now,” he said.
Many producers have held out in hopes of finding another market, something producers in other states have been able to do, according to Maury Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Dairy Development Council. Kentucky producers, however, are apparently being sacrificed at a time when producers in other states benefit by shipping into Kentucky.
“What’s sad about it is Kentucky is a deficit state for milk. They are bringing in all kinds of milk from other states yet they won’t take Kentucky milk here,” William Lutz said.
Farmers have been told that Kroger was negotiating with DFA and Select Milk Producers to keep the dairy operations going by marketing products through Kroger, but the latest word came that negotiations broke down. Other than another extension by Dean Foods to give producers more time to disperse their herds, there was little speculation last week that anyone would find a solution that keeps these dairy farms in business.
Producers were given false hope for awhile when representatives from DFA visited the farms and encouraged them to fill out an application to join the cooperative. They were surprised when the DFA board voted against accepting the producers into the co-op.
Robert Lutz spent $13,000 for a 1,600 gallon tank and rebuilt the ceiling in the milk parlor just three weeks ago because DFA only picks up milk every other day in the area. Dean is picking up his milk every day.
“We thought we were going to have a market,” he said. “Now today, we are probably going to have to sell the cows.”
A potential buyer from Missouri will be in the area this week and Robert said he might ask them to price his cattle. Producers have received from $1,000 to $1,300 per head, well below the usual value for registered dairy cattle.
Lutz’s cattle will easily find a market, considering the genetics. The father and son proudly tell of some 2-year-old cows making 25,000 pounds. They average 23,200 pounds with more than 4 percent butterfat, and Brian said he was expecting their best years were still to come.
While Brian realizes the end may be near for the way of life he had always hoped for, he says he is not giving up until he knows there are no other options.
“They’re not going on a truck until it is done. You can’t get these genetics back,” he said.
By Sharon Burton