If you grew up on a diversified grain and livestock farm, but no longer have livestock, what is the real reason? If you once had livestock, but are out of the business, was the loss of money in livestock enterprises? If you have converted pastures into cropland, was the reason the price of grain was too high to pass up? Or is there another unspoken reason for shifting away from hogs and cattle? There just might be!

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has been keeping tabs on what farmers are doing for nearly 30 years, and the latest survey focused on the decreasing number of farms with livestock operations. And rural sociologist Gordon Arbuckle, Jr. and his colleagues found out the reason for the trend, which matched another trend in agriculture. Their report indicates 64% of Iowa farms had both grain and livestock in 1989, with only 31% specializing in grain production and 3% with only livestock. By 2009, 20 years later the numbers have changed significantly. Only 42% of farms had both grain and livestock, 50% were solely grain farms and only 1% had only livestock.

Raise your hand if you thought the answer might have answered “The profitability of livestock production has declined relative to grain production.” To that response, 59% agreed and 29% expressed uncertainty. Would “Commodity program favor grain production over livestock or mixed grain-livestock systems,” been your response? To that one, 73% said yes, and 21% expressed uncertainty.

One of the basic responses was, “Increased grain production has displaced pasture and hay acreage.” To that one 62% agreed and 29% strongly agreed, with only 6% expressing uncertainty.

However, the primary reason for the changing structure of farms dealt with the average age of farmers increasing year to year. The response, “As farmers age, working with livestock becomes more difficult,” drew 92% agreement and only 5% uncertainty.

There were a number of other responses that drew significant agreement to potential reasons for the change away from diversification. Among them increasing cash rent reduced pastureland, displacement of pasture and hay land by the CRP, and conversion of pasture land to recreation and hunting.

So if the reason for the change was due to increasing age of farmers, what were the demographic characteristics of the respondents to the Iowa State University poll? A total of 1,268 replied and on average, they were 64 years old and had been farming for 39 years. There is no information available about the average age of farmers who responded to the poll in 1989, which provided the baseline data.

However, the USDA Ag Census has tracked that information and has indicated that the average age of farmers is rapidly increasing. According to the Ag Census for the State of Iowa, closest to the 1989 Iowa State poll, the average age of farmers in 1987 was 49.3 years. That indicates the average farmer has aged 15 years during that 20 year span.

The structure of agriculture is changing, and in Iowa, that means fewer farms that have both grain and livestock. Over the past 20 years, there has been a 22% drop in the number of farms with both, and the tendency is a growth in the number of farms focused only on grain production. While there are many reasons for the change, the dominant factor is the rapid increasing age of farmers and finding livestock production more difficult as they grow older. In the past 20 years, the average age of an Iowa farmer has increased by 15 years.

Source: Stu Ellis, University of Illinois