Monteiro brothers survive recession, drought to live their dream

When brothers Mike and Manuel Monteiro began their dream of building a large dairy operation in California’s San Joaquin Valley, they had no idea they would have to overcome a recession, drought and high grain prices. But the brothers persevered and now they’re beginning to enjoy a brighter outlook.

Mike and Manuel both began working on their father, Melvin’s, dairy in Tulare County after they finished their educations. Mike ran the farming operation while Manuel worked with the cattle on the 1,200-head dairy.

“But we learned real quick we were more motivated than hanging around in Dad’s dairy and doing the chores,” said Mike. “We continued working on Dad’s dairy, but we began these ventures of looking into having our own dairy, and a few years later we bought a dairy down a mile down the road. It was a small, 500-cow dairy. We fixed it up and increased the size to 1,500 cows.”

At the time in 2001, Tulare County had more than 300,000 dairy cows, many of them from operations that had moved out of southern California, and the county’s leaders were under scrutiny from environmental regulators. Its resource management offices were under pressure to stop permitting new dairies.

Mike and Manuel found a farm in Kings County, which was much more welcoming to dairies at the time. The farm had  250 acres of almond trees. Although almond prices had been down when the Monteiro brothers bought the farm, they rebounded soon after, giving Mike and Manuel the financial resources to begun putting in what became Lakeside Dairy.

“We began construction of the first phase of this dairy in 2005,” said Mike, speaking to a group of editors attending an AGCO media event at the farm just prior to World Ag Expo. “We built it for 2,000 cows initially. Obviously, it was a big step for us, and I’m not so sure we would have done it had we know what we know now with the recession that came along in 2009.”

The recession hit California’s dairy farmers hard. At one point, producers were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per month because of the low milk prices coupled with the high grain prices that occurred from 2010 to 2013.

Drought has also been bane of dairies as well as hundreds of other farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley. The Monteiros can pump groundwater when surface water is cut off to the central valley as appears to be the case this year. But wells are beginning to dry up, and digging new wells is expensive (more than $250,000 per well).

The brothers struggled along with other dairymen, but have persevered. They’re continued to increase the size and now milk about 3,500 cows. Grain prices, meanwhile, have fallen to more normal levels, taking some of the cost pressures off the operation.

Between the three dairies they operate – Lakeside and Endeavor Gold and M.S. Monteiro & Sons, both of which are in Tulare County – they now milk about 7,000 cows and grow much of their own feed on about 2,500 acres of farmland.

They also own a four-acre array of ground-installed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels that provides electricity to the PGE grid when they have a surplus as well as providing power to the dairy.

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