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High Milk, Beef Prices Spur A Northwest Cattle Rush

We’ve all heard of the Western Gold Rush. But how about the Northwest cattle rush?

Farmers in our region are taking advantage of record prices worldwide for dairy and beef. And on the front lines of this Northwest herd expansion is your friendly artificial insemination technician. So when you douse milk on your morning cereal, think of guys like Dean Hibbs.

Hibbs has been on breakneck drive to breed more cattle and hasn’t had a day off in weeks. He says cows in heat wait for no man.

"These are my girls. I made them."

Hibbs leads the way past a lineup of switching cow tails, looking for the hot cows -- the ones in heat.

“So then I’ll put my hand in her rectum, wipe of her vulva with a paper towel so it's nice and clean, thread my semen through her vagina.  You’re probably not going to put this on the radio," he quips. "And then the tricky part is threading the AI (artificial insemination) gun through her cervix. You have to get it past the cervix. And then deposit it in her uterus. Piece of cake. Done deal.”

Hibbs says he has done this “thousands and thousands and thousands" of times. "These are my girls. I made them."

Hibbs is working some dangerous, long weekends. The reasons for this extra business is close to home and -- on the other side of the world. Here in the U.S.A., strong demand for cheese-smothered pizza and Greek yogurt is increasing demand for dairy. While thousands of miles away, China’s growing middle class and insatiable demand for dairy and beef is jacking up demand even further.

Hibbs says, "$26 for a hundredweight of milk is incredibly high. We’ve never seen it, ever. The dairymen have never had this milk price. And it’s a great thing. They’ve lost money continuously for the last 10 years, so they can build some equity.”

But he adds it’s not all good. Another reason for the increased demand is the misfortune of his neighbors to the south. Drought in California and Texas means farmers there are reducing their herds, or going broke.

“Yes, it’s good for us, but unfortunately what’s good for us has been bad for some other people and that bothers me.”

Internet dating for cattle

With all this milk and beef shortage, Hibbs says he’s breeding herds now that he’s never bred before.

All the romance happens right here. Hibbs walks around a large concrete pen of dairy cattle. He creates an online profile of sorts. Some cows score pretty high like an eight or nine out of 10.

Others … well let’s just say it doesn’t sound very scientific. Like this one: “She’s weird. She’s just weird."

All of these numbers will be run through a computer full of pedigrees and stats -- then this cow will be matched with a bull from Ohio. It’s Internet dating for cattle. The hope is the pair will throw the best possible female calf.

That calf will be delivered by someone like Jose Jimenes. He’s the herdsman of this dairy outside of Pasco.

Pointing down at a still-wet, shivering calf, he grins and says, “Yeah, little bull calf. Money in the pocket.”

Right now, little bulls like this are like gold on four wobbly legs. This crossbred little guy is worth about $260 -- more than twice the price he would have brought last year.

Not everyone benefits

But it turns out, not everyone is sharing in profits of this cattle rush. Francisco Carrillo is another herdsman at a dairy farm about 50 miles down the road.

"For the laborers it might not be that good," he says. "'Cause they have to milk more cows for the same amount of money.”

Still, farmers say the extra money is going to pay back loans, buy newer equipment and stuff cash into savings. And they say they have to consider the uncertain future. For example, if China decides to quit American milk -- that huge surplus might be dumped on the U.S. market.

Dean Hibbs says many farmers are just a few bad years away from going broke. To be in this business, he says, “You got to have some grit.”

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.