Less cowbell? Small livestock farms disappearing

Frank Radosevich II

Years ago, Peoria was known for its wide swath of stockyards on its south end, along the Illinois River. There, starting around the turn of the century, hundreds of heads of cattle were housed, surrounded by the commotion from meat packers and railroad cars.

Farther north, Kewanee became known as the "Hog Capital of the World" in 1948, a title conferred upon it by the state Legislature because of the many hog farms dotting the landscape of Henry County.

Visit most farms around here today, however, and you'll likely find just one crop and no animals. Once an area known for its livestock holdings, central Illinois has seen its number of cows and pigs die off as farmers exit the livestock industry and farms become more specialized and less diverse.

"Our livestock numbers definitely plummeted about 15 to 20 years ago," said Patrick Kirchhofer, director of the Peoria County Farm Bureau.

In 1960, Peoria County counted more than 40,000 head of cattle. That figure steadily declined, ending up at roughly 10,600 head of cattle for 2008.

Rural Woodford County went from 47,100 cattle in 1960 to the present day's 6,500. Tazewell County has fared slightly better, falling from 40,200 to 12,200 during the same time period.

The number of cattle also has been falling statewide. In 1960, Illinois counted just less than 4 million head of cattle. This year, the number is hovering around 1.2 million.

The state has seen a similar trend for hogs and pigs, with more than 7 million in 1960 ending up at 4.35 million in 2008.

Many cite the changing face of farming as the reason behind the shift. Technology has allowed - or forced, as some see it - farmers to concentrate on one particular item.

"Most operations have become more specialized," said Dave Seibert, animal systems educator for the University of Illinois Extension office in East Peoria. "And of course the economic size lets you become more efficient."

By forgoing raising livestock and focusing on one crop, farmers can reach higher economies of scale, a decrease in cost as supply increases.

Seibert recalled that, while growing up on a farm during the 1940s, a wide variety of animals and produce were growing or grazing off the land.

Like many farms at the time, Seibert's childhood home boasted corn, apple trees, hay and red clover dotting the fields, with chickens and a couple of hogs roaming the farmstead. That style of setup these days is rare, he said.

Another reason, Seibert said, was that farmers in the past were mostly self-sustaining, producing a mix of crops and livestock to serve their own personal needs. That's changed nowadays thanks to the large selection of cheap foodstuffs offered at grocery stores and mega-marts.

Wayne Peugh, who raises hogs in central Illinois, said another reason for the decline in livestock stems from the cost of entering and remaining in the livestock industry. Raising pigs efficiently can require specialized buildings, feed and machinery - all of which can mean a significant entry fee for those trying to break into the industry.

"There certainly has been a transition out of the livestock business for many farms," Peugh said. "Forty years ago you could get in and out of pork production just for the cost of an animal."

Another sector hit hard has been the state's dairy industry, which has lost nearly 40 percent of dairy farms in the last 10 years. Cost has been a reason for the decrease but some just feel the time is right for a change.

"There are a lot of reasons why they are going out of business, none of which is 'the big guy is putting me out,'" Jim Fraley, livestock specialist for Bloomington-based Illinois Farm Bureau, said. "It's 'I don't want to invest in my operation. I don't have a son or daughter coming back into the farm.'"

Frank Radosevich II can be reached at (309) 686-3142