FAIRFIELD — As the number of dairy farms in Maine continues to dwindle, one farmer is trading his milking cows for beef-laden steers.

Egide Dostie, 68, an Oakhurst Dairy supplier who has kept a herd for more than 40 years, said national trends toward large farming conglomerates have hurt Maine’s dairy farmers, who can’t scale up as easily as farmers in states with more wide-open spaces.

When he and his 43-year-old son and business partner, Egide Dostie II, look at the cattle industry landscape, they see a way forward for the cattle farmer.

“The future in beef looks good in the state of Maine,” he said.

The number of dairy farms in Maine has been dwindling steadily. Today there are fewer than 300 dairy farms left in the state, down from about 600 farms 20 years ago.

Dostie has been planning to close his farm’s dairy operations since May, when it became obvious the family had to get out or go deeply into debt.

“Our barns are getting worn out,” Dostie said. “Our milking equipment is all worn out. In this business, there’s no money left to reinvest.”

The end of the Dosties’ dairy operation was made official Wednesday, when he sold his livestock in a traditional auction.

Along with births, funerals and weddings, the auctions are major life events within the farming community, drawing farmers from near and far.

Dostie remembers one from 1971, when his father sold his own herd of cattle. Since then, Dostie has gone to many auctions as a purchaser.

Last week it was his turn to sell.

At the auction

On Wednesday, about 50 farmers gathered on Dostie’s farm. They sat on folding chairs beneath a tent, their plaid shirts and overalls giving them ample protection from the crisp October air.

They were there to buy cows, but their sober, respectful attitudes showed their sympathy for Dostie.

“It really stinks to see someone finishing for good,” said Unc Brock, a burly farmer who has a couple of hundred dairy cows at his own farm in Schaghticoke, N.Y., about 350 miles away.

Next to the tent, in a dairy barn full of animals, the Dosties and their employees ushered each cow through a series of paths lined with metal gates and into a pen beneath the tent.

The farmers, quiet but attentive, watched with appraising eyes as each cow was displayed by employees of Northeast Kingston Sales, a Vermont-based auction company.

Dostie said he chose the company because they have deep connections with cattle farmers throughout the Northeast, an important qualification when Maine’s own struggling dairy farmers are unlikely to be adding to their herds.

“Everybody in Maine, a lot of them didn’t have any money,” Dostie said, “and this auctioneer was able to bring up some Pennsylvania people that are expanding, so that helped a lot.”

The auction itself was a blend of hard work and showmanship, as the head auctioneer tried to get the highest price from farmers who wanted to pay the lowest one.

Wearing a red silk jacket advertising his company, Toby Lussier, the head auctioneer, spoke in a deep voice, announcing each cow’s number and any relevant information that might make it more salable.

“This one was just 2 years old in August,” he called for cow number 2149. “She’s short-serviced.”

“She’s short-serviced!” his assistant, standing in the pen, repeated fervently.

Two years is young for a dairy cow, which typically lives only six years. Cows are usually short-serviced, or inseminated, two months after they give birth, which maximizes their milk production.

As the auctioneer called for bids, his speech disintegrated into a rapid-fire blur of incoherent syllables, in which only the prices could be understood.

Every time a bid was indicated, often with a subtle nod of the head or raised finger, the assistant cried out “Yes!,” fervently, his tenor contrasting with the auctioneer’s rumbling bass.

Seeking an opening bid, he rattled off a series of numbers — “twelve and a half, twelve fifty, twelve fifty, fifty, twelve hundred and a half, twelve hundred, twelve hundred.”

No takers. He dropped it down to a starting bid of $1,000, and got multiple bidders involved.

$1,050.

“Yes!” called the assistant.

$1,100.

“Yes!”

$1,150, $1,175, $1,200.

Yes, yes and yes, the assistant cried.

In addition to acting as the chorus, the assistant used a wooden cane to turn the cow left and right for display and kept an eye on the crowd, pointing out bids the auctioneer might have missed.

They eventually drove the bidding up, past the $1,200 price that had drawn no takers at the beginning of the process.

When the auctioneer judged the bid could be pushed no higher — cow number 2149 sold for $1,375 — he moved smoothly on to the next animal, before any sense of desperation could set in.

“Number 4086 is due on December 16,” he called as another cow entered the pen. “Look at the udder under that one!”

“Look at that udder!” marveled the assistant.

Another round of bidding ensued, with about a dozen bids pushing the pregnant cow’s price to her selling figure, $1,900, one of the highest of the afternoon.

When the last cow was bought and paid for, Dostie, who said he was happy with the amount raised, officially had left the shrinking ranks of Maine dairy farmers.

Dairy business curdling

The industry has changed since Dostie first went into dairy farming in 1972. He still puts in long hours — he estimates 11 a day — but there is more machinery and less physical labor these days.

The price of grain to feed the cows, purchased from the Midwest, also has soared in recent years.

It used to be about $200 per ton, he said, but Midwest crop failures from droughts drove the price up to $430 a ton during the winter.

“Our grain bill on this farm was $10,000 a week,” he said. “It was costing us half, about half of the milk check for this grain.”

By the time he paid for labor, machinery upkeep and chemicals to keep everything clean, he said, “there was just nothing left.”

In the Midwest, where enough flat, arable land exists to grow the nation’s feed grain, farmers have an advantage, Dostie said.

Grain doesn’t have to be shipped as far, and the areas with more wide-open spaces are able to buy bigger tracts of usable land, which allows for more cows and a more efficient economy of scale.

Also, because the federal government buys surplus milk, there is no risk of producing too much, Dostie said.

“The bigger get bigger,” he said.

But Maine’s rugged geography doesn’t have wide expanses of tillable land, and the few grassy pastures that do exist come at a higher cost.

“You only have so many acres. It takes about an acre for every head of cattle. You can’t grow to 2,000 or 4,000 head.”

A chapter of his professional life is ending, but Dostie, a practical man who has been farming his entire life, feels only limited sentimentality for the cows that are gone.

“I had one that followed me around the barn, real friendly,” he said. “I’ll miss her.”

Her name?

“2177.”

Beefing up

While the Dosties have sold off their dairy cows, it’s not the end of their family farm.

It is instead, they hope, a new beginning.

Dostie plans to “semi-retire,” focusing on the farm’s other products, which include a maple sugaring operation.

But the next generation’s fortunes, overseen largely by Dostie’s son, will be tied up in that other major cattle product: beef.

The Dosties are not the only new beef cattle farmers in Maine.

While the number of dairy farms in Maine shrank between 2002 and 2007, the number of beef cattle farms increased from about 1,100 farms to about 1,300, according to the USDA.

Dostie said the farm’s creditors are watching carefully, because it is rare for an existing dairy farm to convert to raising beef, but he feels the time is right.

The same Midwestern drought that drove up the cost of grain also drove up the cost of beef, making for some eye-catching prices.

Dostie also is drawn by the idea that he wouldn’t be dependent on Midwestern grain prices, planning to instead feed his animals grass and corn silage he grows himself.

But there are signs that the beef industry is not as robust as it was a few decades ago, with more consumers turning to poultry. In 1985, the average person ate 79.2 pounds of beef; but in 2009, the most recent year on record, the average was down to 61.1 pounds, according to USDA numbers cited by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The Dosties could do well, but not if their business plan relies on the price of beef to remain sky-high, according to Dennis and Sarah Wilk, who have owned their own beef operation, King and I Angus, in nearby Industry for 13 years.

Beef that they usually sell for as little as $1 per pound is selling for $1.50, Dennis Wilk said.

Wilk, who served as the president of the Maine Angus Association from 2008 to 2012, said the high beef prices will last only as long as the demand outstrips the unusually limited supply.

“The number of live cattle is at an all-time low, probably in the last 50 or 60 years,” he said. “Those farms are going to start restocking, and within two years you’ll see beef prices going the other way.”

Droughts aside, the price of a pound of ground beef at the supermarket has outpaced the inflation rate over the decades. Between August 1985 and August 2013, the amount consumers paid for ground beef nearly tripled, from $1.21 to $3.45, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Inflation alone would account for a modern price of only $2.63.

Wilk said the state’s beef industry has the potential to grow, but only for farmers with a sound plan.

Smaller operations can never undercut the lowest prices of the enormous farms of the Midwest, he said, but they can find niches that support something a little different. Few people differentiate between one glass of whole milk and the next, he said, but everyone has an idea about what the perfect steak tastes like.

For Wilk, the keys to success have included breeding and caring for high-quality animals and selling at the high end of the market, to people who appreciate a high-quality product. He sells through a variety of venues, including directly to consumers at five farmers markets.

At the Dostie farm, the cattle barn is not empty.

“We didn’t sell our heifers,” Dostie said. “We kept all of our young stock.”

Those animals will be the nucleus of a new herd of cattle, one that will soon be enriched by new acquisitions. The previous herd was fed and inseminated on a schedule that maximized their milk. The animals in the new herd will be raised to grow fat as quickly as possible.

Most beef cattle owners use breeds that have been specially bred to the purpose — the Wilks have Angus — but Dostie is sticking with his Holsteins, a dairy breed, even though they don’t fatten up as quickly. Because male Holstein calves have little value to dairy farmers, he said, he can buy them at a lower price than an Angus steer. He has consulted with veterinarians to develop a feeding schedule — it boils down to giving them more corn silage near the end of their growing cycle — that he said will fatten them up adequately.

When Dostie is ready, it will be time for him to go to some other auction, at some other New England farm, where he will take on the role of bidder once again.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com