Kenichiro Takagi stared sadly at an empty cowshed.
“I have been around cows since I was old enough to understand things,” said the 63-year-old farmer from Nasukarasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture. “It’s lonely without them.”
He is one of the many dairy farmers who have stopped raising milk cows in the face of surging feed prices.
The Japan Dairy Council, an organization comprising dairy-related and raw milk producing groups across the country, predicts about 1,240 farm households in all prefectures except Hokkaido will cease raising cows this year.
The price of grain has been rising sharply around the world since fall 2006 amid a rise in demand for grains such as corn for biofuels and a flow of speculative funds into grain markets.
Imported feed mixed primarily with corn cost about ¥40,000 per ton until two years ago, but the price soared to up to ¥68,000 last year. Takagi said annual feed costs rose from ¥2 million to ¥3.2 million.
He shut down his cowshed Dec. 8 and sold 20 dairy cows for meat. His oldest son had said he would not follow in his footsteps. Cows had been raised on the farm since his grandfather started the business after World War II.
“Maybe I am lucky I gave up raising milk cows without being in debt,” Takagi said, adding he will now plant rice to make a living.
Dairy farmers had their heyday in 1963, when the number of farm households raising dairy cattle totaled 417,600 against the background of the Westernization of the Japanese diet and the expansion of school lunch programs.
However, the number has gradually declined as farmers grew old and gave up farming, while farms themselves have been streamlined on a large scale. The number dropped to 24,400 last year.
According to Dairy Tochigi Agri. Co-op in the prefectural capital of Utsunomiya, one-third of 600 dairy farm households were in the red last year and 30 quit the business.
Dairy product makers raised the price of fresh milk by about ¥10 per kg this month, but Hirofumi Maeda, secretary general of the dairy council, said even that increase will still leave almost all dairy farmers in a difficult position.
Nobuhiro Suzuki, an agricultural economy professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, said: “Butter disappeared from supermarkets last year due to a decline in the output of raw milk. It is conceivable that milk will fall into the same situation. It is necessary for those concerned to study the possibility of making use of rice as feed for cattle for domestic self-sufficiency. It is also necessary to increase the purchase price of raw milk.”
The dairy council said dairy farmers maintain high productivity and are in the top rank globally together with the United States in terms of the annual volume of milk production.
The country’s dairy farming is said to have originated in Chiba Prefecture during the 1700s, when shogun Yoshimune of the Tokugawa clan during the Edo Period (1603-1867) started to raise cows. Milk became a beverage for ordinary people during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
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