You’ve got to hand it to South Dakota.
Over the last seven years, the Mount Rushmore State has recruited 21 dairies to make the state their place of operation. Most of them are congregating along the I-29 corridor that runs north and south in eastern South Dakota. Among the newcomers is a dairy from my home base of Bakersfield, Calif. That producer, A.J. Bos, has chosen a site near Brookings, S.D., for a brand-new dairy with a 3,500-cow Jersey herd. Bos’ dairy is expected to be up and running by next spring. (He’ll still keep his Bakersfield dairy, I’m glad to hear.)
Today, South Dakota is home to 92,000 milk cows and in need of more milk. It counts nine milk processing plants, including Davisco, Valley Queen Cheese Factory and a brand-new $100 million Bel Brands facility that will launch late next year.
And just last October, it opened the $9.3 million Davis Dairy Plant, a state-of-the-art teaching, research and dairy processing center. South Dakota State University also is actively recruiting nationwide students to its dairy science program.
The state’s recent dairy growth is, in fact, the result of a concerted effort by South Dakota, says Dr. Vikram Mistry, head of the Dairy Science Department at South Dakota State University.
"What has made the difference is the state decided it was going to make it happen," Mistry told me yesterday at World Dairy Expo. "In 1999, when Davisco decided it was going to build its new plant in Lake Norden, S.D., we realized the state would need more cows."
South Dakota got to work. Working through the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Mistry’s Dairy Science Department, the state began an intensive dairy development plan. Among other things, its recruitment efforts included appearances at places like World Dairy Expo.
"World Dairy Expo is a huge show for us," David Skaggs, dairy development specialist with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, said yesterday at Expo. "It gets us a lot of exposure, and helps us plant the seed to get people to explore the Upper Midwest. We’re seeing people from the Netherland and Canada looking to re-locate, and they see South Dakota as a viable option."
For many, Skaggs has been the face of South Dakota’s dairy recruitment efforts since he took on the job seven years ago. He knows that successful recruitment is the result of four or five years of relationship-building. He knows what producers are looking for. And when they – like California’s Bos – choose South Dakota, "it’s a business decision for them," Skaggs said.
They see a state with good feed availability in its hay, corn, soybeans and forages. They see lower transportations costs. They see milk plants that want milk and farmers who want dairy nutrients for their cropland. The cost of farmland along the I-29 corridor ranges from $3,000 to $9,000 per acre, still in the affordable range for many.
A small fly in the ointment might be that, since the first of the year, South Dakota has lost about 8% -- or about 25 herds -- of its licensed dairy farms, likely due to the drought and high feed prices. But that’s not been a loss for the state, since larger dairies probably have absorbed many of those cows.
Perhaps the most important driver for the state’s dairy development efforts is South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard. "He is our No. 1 salesman," Skaggs said.
Daugaard has been a key player in South Dakota’s dairy development efforts. He and his team, which includes State Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones, have made the state’s support and easy access to the higher levels of government a reality for interested dairies. Gov. Daugaard’s office has an open-door policy and is only a phone call away, Skaggs told me. The permitting process takes 90 days if a dairy is in the right location.
Daugaard is not there only for the ground-breaking ceremonies. I’ve seen him in California pitching for dairies to consider coming to South Dakota.
And when Bel Brands – maker of the Mini Babybel, The Laughing Cow and Boursin products-- announced its decision to build its third U.S. cheese plant, there was no missing Daugaard’s exultation.
"I am thrilled to welcome Bel Brands to South Dakota," Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in February. "The impact of this project goes beyond the creation of up to 400 jobs. It goes beyond the estimated annual $500 million economic impact once the plant is fully operational. And it goes beyond the opportunity for our dairy operations to expand both capacity and market share. Having an internationally respected company like Bel Brands as our newest corporate citizen tells the world that South Dakota is open and ready for business from anywhere around the globe."
More dairy states need a champion like Daugaard -- and a team like Skaggs, Mistry and Bones -– people who don’t just mouth the words but put them into action.