The New Frontier

The same pioneering spirit that led people to settle western Kansas in the 1870s and 1880s is alive  and well. Just ask the family that moved here from Minnesota in order to “head west” and escape the cold winters back home. With the backing of local investors, the family has built a beautiful new dairy that currently milks around 1,870 cows.

Another family moved here because the flat plains of western Kansas are more conducive to dairy growth than the hilly terrain of north central Pennsylvania.

Others have moved here from California and Washington to escape urban sprawl, and form  partnerships with local grain farmers and beef cattle feedlot operators. The grain and beef guys see dairy as a chance to diversify their portfolios and gain a return on investment that exceeds 12  to 15 percent.

Western Kansas has become a magnet for new dairy growth. At least 17 dairies with 1,000 cows or more have moved into the region.

It makes sense. Western Kansas, along with other Great Plains regions, are growing because they offer abundant feed and water, moderate weather, and community acceptance of animal agriculture. Many of the communities are accustomed to large feedlots and meatpacking plants, so no one thinks twice about a 4,000-head dairy. State regulators are actually cooperative rather than confrontational; they approve permits in six months or less rather than postponing or stonewalling.

Much of what we see lines up with future trends:

  • Increased diversification, which includes the willingness to partner with other people. Working with investors or other farmers can allow a person to build a larger dairy operation than he ever could on his own.
  • Increased reliance on Hispanic labor. Many of the communities in western Kansas, the  Texas panhandle and elsewhere have a large pool of Hispanics.
  • Increased weariness of environmental lawsuits. No one can ever hope to avoid legal  problems altogether, for it only takes one bad neighbor to make life miserable. But people can improve their chances by living in an area where agriculture is the predominant culture and urbanities are not moving out to lakes and river gorges to build their dream homes. “Tree huggers” tend to avoid areas like western Kansas because there are so few trees to hug.

Despite the appeal of certain geographic regions, most of you will stay put right where you are.  That’s fine. But, you should still be aware of the trends, and why some dairymen are moving elsewhere. No one wants to live in an area that is losing dairies—and, ultimately, the infrastructure that includes cheese plants, veterinarians and equipment dealers.

Take a hard look at what your state is doing to retain its dairy infrastructure. Do you have industry groups that are working proactively on this issue? Do you work with other ag-related industries in the state on issues of mutual concern? For example, working with the pork industry on environmental issues to gain greater clout in the state legislature.

Learn what some of the new growth areas like western Kansas have to offer. Or, what the more traditional growth areas like California or Idaho have offered over the past 10 to 15 years. Ask what your state can do to gain some of these same advantages.

By Tom Quaife, Editor, Dairy Herd Management – July 2002