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With paltry dairy prices, Minnesota farmer prepares to milk his cows one last time

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After 30 years of dairy farming, Steve Cordes, of rural Henning, Minn., is giving up his cows in the face of low milk prices. Forum News Service2 / 2

HENNING, Minn. — After 30 years of milking, Steve Cordes knows his cows by name.

"Her mother was Boo. This is Buzz," Cordes said, pointing to a Jersey cow.

The rural Henning dairy farmer is preparing for a day this weekend he's dreaded.

"The hardest part of this for me, the girls having to say goodbye to something that has been a part of their life," he said. "That is all they have known since they were babies, and it is a business, but it is a way of life more than anything."

Cordes and his family will soon say goodbye to his dairy cows and all that goes with life on a dairy farm. The long days and nights, no vacations — but a lifestyle like no other.

"Halloween they had to come down to the barn and show Dad their costumes before trick-or-treating. Christmas morning, they patiently waited for me to finish milking, so they could see what Santa brought. Everything in their lives has revolved around these cows because they have to be milked twice a day and taken care of," Cordes said.

Milk prices for dairy farmers have hit rock bottom and stayed there too long. Cordes had to do something.

"I just got my milk check for July's milk, and my base was $14 a hundredweight. And that is the same price I got 25 years ago, and our expenses have doubled and sometimes tripled," he said.

While the math should make this an easy decision, it's not. After all, Cordes' ancestors from Germany arrived in this part of Otter Tail County before the 1900s. That's when this tradition started.

"My great great grandfather homesteaded on the south shores of West Leaf Lake of Leaf Lake Township (Henning). Since then, there has been a Cordes farming for 133 years. I am the last one, but that is a long run," he said.

Cordes is not alone. In the last 18 years, 42,000 dairy farmers nationwide have called it quits. But just two hours south of Otter Tail County, there are mega dairy farms going up. Where in each barn, there are 10,000 cows being milked.

"I can't compete with such a specialized operation, and it runs like clockwork," Cordes said.

These days, Otter Tail County has about 150 dairy farmers. There used to be hundreds.

Cordes said his passion for dairy farming has faded. "I hate to say that. But after 30 years, you lose that spark. I need a new challenge. I am scared and excited all at once," he said.

The bright spot: Cordes will stay on the farm. He's already started to branch out into raising sheep.

The farm tradition his family started more than a century ago, it will continue.

"You are going to wake up at 5 a.m., no matter what, and feel lost not going to the barn," Cordes said.