The Kansas dairy industry is growing, and it’s a win-win for producers and local economies.
-By Sara Gugelmeyer, Published in the Kansas Stockman
Driving through western Kansas, one can’t help but notice dairy-type cattle – whether it is cows at a dairy, steers or heifers in a feedyard or baby calves in hutches – they’re everywhere. The dairy industry in Kansas, especially the western half of the state, is booming. And the reasons why are many.
Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) data shows the dairy industry in Kansas has grown 27% in five years and a whopping 169% in the last 20 years. The industry contributes $592 million annually to the Kansas economy and supports about 3,500 jobs.
Dairy growth has been a great boost to the economy in these small rural communities. For example, the average dairy employs 60 people, which brings about 80 kids to the local school district, and is a top 10 property tax contributor, according to KDA.
A portion of this growth has resulted from improvement in production per cow attributed to genetics and improved management techniques, according to KDA. However, a vast majority has come from increased cow numbers with the addition of about 30 large dairies in western Kansas since 1994.
Most of these new dairies are from out-of-state dairymen, but a few Kansans have diversified into the dairy business, and KLA President Elect David Clawson of Englewood is one of them.
“I grew up in Satanta, on a farm and beef cow-calf operation,” Clawson said. “Then, (in addition to those enterprises), about 15 years ago, there was a number of us local people that saw the growth of the industry getting started and we wanted to be a part of it. We went together and built the dairy at Plains and called it High Plains Dairy. We are continuing to move forward.”
There are a few main reasons why Clawson, a past KLA Dairy Council chairman, and other dairymen have chosen western Kansas as the place to milk cows: 1) dry, mild climate; 2) favorable business environment; and 3) availability of feed.
Western Kansas is known for its dry climate, which, just like in cattle feeding, is important to housing dairy cows. Muddy conditions aren’t conducive to keeping cows happy and neither are extreme highs or lows. A relatively mild climate keeps the cows producing.
Favorable business environment
As many feedyards have seen a reduction in cattle on feed because of reduced nationwide cow numbers, that space has been filled with dairy cattle.
“Dairy heifer development in southwest Kansas has really grown, especially in the last five years as the feedlots have shut down or reduced numbers,” Clawson said. “The feedlots have re-opened to the dairies for heifer development. There are a lot of heifers from the upper Midwest area coming here to be raised and developed.”
Also, Kansas is a friendly state to agriculture. Established dairies in less business-friendly states, like California, have relocated to Kansas.
“What’s really pulling people in right now is western Kansas is especially friendly to large ag businesses like dairies,” Clawson says. “It’s both the attitude in the people of western Kansas and it’s also the attitude of the state – the department of ag is very proactive in trying to make it welcoming and inviting to people that want to expand or relocate.”
KDA’s dairy program is committed to serving dairy farmers in the state by providing resources needed to help dairy and related businesses grow and thrive. This pro-business attitude starts at the top, with Gov. Sam Brownback, and filters down through his administration, as evidenced through KDA.
Availability of feedstuffs
While western Kansas has a dry climate, because of irrigation, feed is still readily available. And competition for feed between feedyards and dairies is low, according to Clawson.
“It’s a different type of diet,” he explained. “Dairies don’t use the actual grain as much as feedyards. Although we feed some ground corn, we mainly feed forage in terms of corn silage, alfalfa, sorghum silage, wheat silage or feeds like that.”
Every business needs a market for its product, and as the industry has grown, so have the options for milk processing.
Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), a dairy marketing cooperative owned by nearly 14,000 dairy farmers in 48 states, is building a milk processing facility in Garden City. Called Meadowlark Dairy Nutrition, the new 214,000-square-foot plant will produce whole, skim and nonfat dry milk powder and cream from milk produced by local dairies. It will open in the fall of 2017 and process about 4 million pounds of milk daily.
DFA Vice President for Dairy Marketing and Business Planning Michael Lichte said, “This project will have a positive impact on the local dairy community, as it provides a local market for dairy producers operating in communities throughout southwest Kansas, which was much-needed as many local farms were sending their milk to other areas of the country.”
Clawson agrees. His High Plains Dairy already is selling milk to DFA, but most of it is shipped a good distance.
“DFA works logistics and decides where the shortage is and delivers it there,” Clawson explains. “Most of the time, it is used in milk, cheese or powder within 300 miles, but not always. Once the processing plant in Garden City is opened, most will be used there.”
He adds the new DFA plant ensures a future for the dairy industry in Kansas.
“They’re trying to meet the needs of the dairymen to not have to haul their milk so far,” said Clawson. “If it can be used and processed right here, it’s better for everyone.”
Because of this, Clawson says he expects more growth, especially in western Kansas.
“I don’t know that there is going to be a big explosion, but a continued gradual growth,” he said.
And because there is little competition for feedstuffs, there’s no need for cattle feeders or ranchers to feel threatened. In fact, there’s a lot of overlap between the interests of dairymen and feeders.
“There’s already a huge relationship because dairies and feedlots have the same environmental rules and challenges to consider,” Clawson said. “So politically, they see things very closely.”
Growth is expected, but water may be the limiting factor.
“One of the main concerns, I think, is water,” Clawson said. “There are concerns both about the amount that’s there and the longevity. Dairymen not only need water for their dairy, but there also has to be water to grow forage for the cows.”
For now, though, with the new DFA plant serving as a strong local market for milk, the future looks bright for the Kansas dairy industry.
“Overall there are people who are talking to me about coming into this area and looking for ground and trying to find places to build,” Clawson says. “They aren’t looking to compete with other dairies, but to utilize the resources available, which really helps all of us in the Kansas economy.”
In addition to being a cattle and equine freelance writer, Sara Gugelmeyer and her husband run their own cattle operations in Kansas and Texas.