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The price of milk: Low for milk drinkers, but sinks family farms

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"No matter what, you've got a sick cow or a cow having a calf, you've gotta be around whether it's 1:00 in the morning, or it's whatever time, you've got to take care of them," said Michael MacLaren, 48. "But if you've got a tractor break down, you can walk away from it. It's just a long hard grind, and I decided I'd like a change."

While the number of dairy cows in the U.S. hasn't changed much, the number of dairy farms has been dropping as small farms either go out of business or consolidate to become more competitive and cost effective.

The number of dairy farms nationally has dropped from nearly 92,000 in 2002 to less than 70,000 in 2007, according to the last agricultural census, which is being updated this year.

That's not the whole picture though. The number of small farms, with 100 to 199 cows, fell from about 11,000 to about 9,000 during that time, while those with more than 1,000 cows grew from about 1,300 to almost 1,600.

The shift has affected states like Vermont and Wisconsin, which have strong dairying histories, but tend to have smaller farms than other major milk-producing states like California and Texas.

Wisconsin has lost nearly 200 herds so far this year and now has about 11,600.

The farm closures are likely to continue with milk prices expected to keep falling this summer.

"It's a dying business," said Ron Wright, owner of Wrights Auction Service in Derby. He expects to do twice as many auctions this spring as last — eight to 10 auctions in Vermont and one in New York.

The U.S. had been gradually losing dairy farms for decades, but then milk prices plummeted during the recession and fuel costs soared in 2009. Vermont lost 52 dairies that year, while Wisconsin lost 519.

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