Author: Pat Melgares
K-State Research and Extension news service
MANHATTAN, Kan. When Hilmar Cheese Company announced in May 2021 that it would build a cheese and whey processing plant south of Dodge City, it marked another major achievement for the Kansas dairy industry.
Hilmar’s facility, which is expected to be operational in 2024, will create 247 new jobs. The project and the associated dairy farms needed to supply the equipment will bring an additional dairy farm and additional support positions to the region. Hilmar officials said this represents more than $1 billion in investment in Southwest Kansas.
“Dodge City was chosen because it is a supportive agricultural region in close proximity to the local dairy industry,” said Hilmar CEO and President David Ahlem.
But the bottom line is that Kansas has been generating a lot of milk production over the past quarter century.
In 2021, the Kansas Department of Agriculture reported that the dairy industry contributed $1.39 billion to the state’s economy along with 4,018 jobs when indirect and induced impacts are considered.
According to KDA data, over the past 29 years, the number of Kansas cattlemen has doubled, while milk production has quadrupled.
It begs the question: Why has this sector of the state’s agricultural industry exploded over the past three decades, and how did it happen?
“Abundance of feed, ag-friendly policies and community and room to grow were the main factors in our move to Kansas,” said Ken McCarty, a 2005 Kansas State University animal science and industry graduate who was still a teenager. when his parents, Tom and Judy, moved the family dairy from Sugar Run, Pennsylvania, to northwest Kansas in 1999.
Another factor, Ken McCarty adds, is location: “As my dad always tells us, ‘We’re halfway to everywhere in Kansas.'” McCarty’s processing plant in Rexford is one of three large processing plants currently operating in the state . , the others in Garden City and Hugoton.
“What really drove the recruitment effort was that we had feed stock,” said George Blush, who was the dairy program inspection manager for the KDA from 1999 to 2018. “We had silage, we had corn; we had everything we needed (dairies) readily available. Several California dairies came in and expanded their operations in Kansas. They said they could pay for the dairy within a few years just based on the cost (savings) they saw in feed and transportation.”
Mike Brouk’s 24-year career as a dairy specialist for K-State Research and Extension put him right in the middle of growing Kansas. He recalls an early part of his career when cow numbers struggled: “That was a really low point,” he said.
While the marketing efforts attracted the attention of dairy producers, K-State specialists were doing what they do best: The beetle was involved in studies that aided cow comfort, including installing fans in stalls and other heat reduction strategies. He has worked on strategies to improve nutrition and forage quality and to develop heifers that have been bred in several states and even for producers in Qatar.
Agricultural engineer Joe Harner, who retired in June 2022 after 40 years at K-State, was involved in designing equipment at Kansas dairies, including waste and water management systems that used sand to filter manure.
“When you look at the work that Mike (Beetle) did with heat stress, anybody could adopt it,” Harner said. “No matter the size of the traffic, everyone could benefit from the work we were doing.”
“John Shirley (who retired from K-State in 2005) taught me how to ration the right way,” said Brent Buessing, a 2003 K-State graduate who owns the 300-cow Buessing Dairy in Baileyville, Kan. from what I learned from K-State, I believe in what I do. I can run my allotments much more cheaply and still get excellent milk production.”
K-State’s dairy on the north side of its Manhattan campus is “the highest-producing dairy in the state,” according to Brouk, adding that the dairy is critical to helping the K-State team implement practices that will ultimately help Kansas dairies.
Russell Plaschka, director of agribusiness development for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said Landgrant K-State’s mission — providing objective, science-based information to the people of Kansas — “has played a critical role in growing agriculture in our state.”
The west side of Kansas was favored for so-called mega-dairies — those with 2,000 or more cows. The eastern side of the state was more common for smaller dairies.
“Western Kansas has attracted larger dairies because of low land prices, ample feed supply and reasonable regulations,” said Orville Miller, owner of Miller Dairy near Hutchinson in the central part of the state.
Technology has also played a vital role in the past 20 years, including systems that recycle water to be used multiple times on the farm; and automated milking systems—often called robotic milkers—that allow cows to access the parlor 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We know that dairies in the area rely on K-State research to advance the industry,” Hilmar’s Ahlem said. “Research and education are critical as our industry moves toward sustainability goals.”
Read more about the success of the Kansas dairy industry at https://www.k-state. edu/agreport/images/ fall2022/AgReport_2022_ web.pdf