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North Dakota dairy industry needs a push

Restoring the dairy industry in North Dakota is not only Amber Boeshans’ job, it’s also her personal goal. Boeshans is the livestock development specialist at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and the director of the state’s Dairy Coalition. But she’s been around cattle her whole life.

“Cows are my favorite thing,” she says.

The state’s dairy industry is in a funk, suffering a 22 percent decrease in operations since 2007. Only 91 operate in the state now.

“This is a scary time in the industry,” Boeshans says.

In 1990, dairy cows in North Dakota numbered 88,000. Today, the state has just 16,000.

“There’s actually more cows on one South Dakota dairy than in our entire state,” she says.

“The numbers are heartbreaking,” she adds. “We’ve had very heavy contraction in the industry.”

The culprits

The massive, unsettling decline in North Dakota’s dairies can be attributed to multiple factors, including aging farmers, which is a problem many sectors of agriculture are battling.

“They’re getting old, and milking cows is hard work,” Boeshans says. “And it’s not just a job; it’s a lifestyle.”

Dairy farmers are retiring now, having never taken a vacation or sat at a baseball game to cheer on their kids or grandkids.

“You have to be there to milk those cows,” Boeshans says, adding that a dairy needs to be large to be profitable.

She expects an even further decline in the state’s dairy numbers as milk prices drop.

Another battle the state’s dairy operators fight is the distance to processors. Unlike crops, milk can’t sit in storage until it can be taken for processing and sale. It has to go right away, which incurs cost on the dairymen. The state needs more processors in order to boost the industry and make it attractive, but without an already-solid footing and stable supply of milk from dairies, none will take root here.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring says it’s the chicken-and-egg scenario. “We need processors to support farms; we need farms to support processors,” Goehring says.

He says the industry is experiencinga domino effect, citing one dairy in the northern part of the state that closed and led to the closures of five more.

“Our concerns have been this continual depopulation of our dairy cows and dairies in North Dakota,” Goehring says, adding the state is now at a 600-cowper-day deficit.

“We are at a very crucial point,” Boeshans says.

Milk in Minnesota

In Minnesota, the situation is far less dire. While the state also has seen a shrink in the overall number of dairies, the remaining operations continue to expand, balancing the natural attrition as farmers retire, says Marin Bozic, assistant professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota and associate director of the university’s Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center in St. Paul.

The state has about 460,000 cows in its 3,500 dairies. Minnesota is losing about 2 percent of its dairies per year, but that’s a normal retirement rate, Bozic says.

“It’s not an indication of crisis.”

Milk production has increased by about 1.3 percent per year in the past 10 to 13 years, Bozic says, adding that the large expansions on the remaining dairies have kept it more stable in comparison with North Dakota’s dairy industry.

“We have a certain number of large dairies expanding and they have been able to compensate for attrition,” he says.

The solutions

North Dakota’s Dairy Coalition has a meeting in March to address the state of affairs and begin the steps toward a fix.

“The No. 1thing we need to do is have a discussion,” Boeshans says.

Conversations are being had all over the state, and the Dairy Coalition will help spur action, she says. Crop groups are supportive because they would benefit directly from a dairy industry revival, she says, and it could also help ease rail delays, keeping corn in state to be used as feed.

“North Dakota’s got the feed,” Boeshans says. “We have everything to make this work.”

“We have farmers that grow great feed — an abundance of them,” Goehring says.

The state and its feed supply also are lures for dairies in other areas of the country. Dairies are being pushed out as land is purchased and converted to other uses, and North Dakota’s resources present a prime opportunity, Boeshans says.

“They’re looking at North Dakota.”

Goehring says, “The open landscape that we have gives … operations an opportunity to contract for feed between growers and farmers.”

It also allows contracts for the disposal of manure with local farmers who need and want it.

Boeshans says producers in California have expressed tremendous interest in North Dakota because of the ongoing drought.

“They do balk at our weather,” she adds with a laugh.

But, interestingly, cows prefer cold weather.

“They’re so much happier in cold than hot weather.”

More livestock will be coming to the Upper Midwest, as coastal regions focus on exports, Boeshans adds.

“So the milk consumed by our children will be made in the Midwest.”

Goehring says South Dakota has put in place exemptions in regulations to help out-of-state operations come in and operate. He says that strategy could be implemented in North Dakota, too, but he has left that decision up to the ag industry.

“It’s a bit of rethinking our approach,” he says.

The new Margin Protection Program in the federal farm bill will help, too. The program provides assistance to farmers when the margin, or difference between the price of milk and feed costs, falls below a certain level. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 23,000 dairies, more than half of all U.S. dairy farms, enrolled in the program by the Dec. 19 deadline.

Despite the challenges the dairy industry in North Dakota is facing, the hope for a better future is bright. With all the opportunities and resources the state has in place already, the plans for a comeback are in motion and have a great chance for success.

“The iron is white hot,” Boeshans says.