June is Dairy Month and for the Burton household in Adair County, that’s like a family tradition. Otis Burton, the family’s 87-year-old patriarch, made his living as a dairy farmer for well over 60 years. His two sons, Benny and Jeffro, carry on the tradition with dairy farms of their own.
This year’s annual celebration is not the same because the Burtons lost both their parents earlier this year.
Otis died on May 29 from injuries he sustained in an accident on his way to visit his wife’s grave. For Benny and Jeffro, and their sisters Bessie Judd and Mary Betty Helm, their parents will always be a big part of the farming operation.
“Daddy farmed probably all his life. I am 63 and he started farming before I was born,” said Benny. “And the thing is he did it all by hand (back in the day).”
Though no official records can be found, Benny believes his father was the oldest and longest running dairy farmer in the state, possibly the United States.
Jeffro and Benny said they have had a great life growing up on the farm. They, along with their sisters, were usually up around 5 a.m. each day because there was work to do before they headed out to school.
They learned a lot about hard work from their dad because Otis had work assignments for each of them, and getting the job done was everyone’s top priority.
“We learned a lot about honor, respect, character, discipline and love from him,” Jeffro said. “You also learned about how to survive on a farm. We didn’t have all this big high tech stuff, so we learned the simple things. Why buy a rope when you can tie some grass together and make your own. You did what you had to do to get the bottom line, get the job done.”
Benny and his siblings said they have plans for their father’s farm, but they’re in no hurry to make those decisions. They’re still trying to get back on their feet after their tragic loss.
Jeffro has about 80 head of cattle on his farm and Benny takes care of about 70 head of cattle. Combined, they work to take care of their father’s some 20 cows. A life they appreciate.
“This job of farmer is very labor intensive,” Jeffro said. “Especially when you do it yourself. There is a lot of work to do on the farm, but I love being at home and being self-employed.”
“People don’t realize just how much hard work goes into it,” said Benny, who even battled the coronavirus this year. “A dairy farm is a great place to raise kids. I raised three daughters here, and they were all good kids. Being in a farm environment offers a lot.”
Benny said the costs of operating a dairy are now probably the biggest obstacle facing a farmer. He gave an example of earning $14 per hundredweight of Grade B milk 40 years ago, and just last summer farmers were earning $14.50 for Grade A milk. He also mentioned the constant battle with mega-dairies.
“The preliminary incubation on milk starts to grow as soon as it leaves the udder. Our milk is picked up every other day, so some of the milk is 48 hours old before it leaves my farm,” Benny said. “Then they put it on a truck and take it somewhere and it might set there for a day. So, once they get it to the plant, it could be 72 hours old.”
Milk with long preliminary incubation has the chance of going bad. Farmers want to get the milk to the plant as soon as possible.
“Milking is not really a winning situation,” Jeffro said. “In Adair County, the farms that milk 250 cows are struggling just like we are. I think the government has good intentions, but the dairy industry has never had anyone to stand up for it.”
Benny said he has had a lifetime of dairying, and he doesn’t want to stop.
“I am set up to milk, so I can get by even though there isn’t much money in it. I just need to be able to take care of my family. The life of a dairy farmer just kind of gets in your blood,” he said.
The Burton brothers are really not sure what the dairy industry will look like 10, 15 or 20 years down the road. However, they said to expect many more changes.
“I don’t think the dairy industry will be here in 15-20 years,” Benny said. “People will be getting their dairy products from the large companies, and the smaller dairies will have it rough. I was told by a milk inspector there used to be over 200 dairies in Adair County. Now, we have 24.”
Benny believes improved government regulations could help dairy farmers, but at the end of the day, dairy producers need to be paid more for their product.
“And, there should also be incentives for farmers that do it themselves – like dad,” Benny said. “Our dad was motivated and a hard worker. He may not have had a lot of money, but he sure was a successful man.”
By Scott Wilson