Jon Patterson’s dairy, near Auburn, N.Y., milks 1,100 cows on a farm that’s been in the family since 1832.
They jostle for the No. 3 position in U.S. milk production while dairying in sharply different environments. But dairy producers in the two states share similar concerns.
If you want to imagine a friendly rivalry between two major dairy states, Idaho and New York might be contenders.
The two states regularly vie for third place in U.S. milk production, behind California and Wisconsin. In April, New York out-produced Idaho, churning out 1.135 billion pounds of milk from 5,150 dairies and 615,000 cows. That compares to Idaho’s 1.129 billion pounds from 526 dairy operations and nearly 542,000 dairy cows.
Idaho, however, may be back on top by year’s end, says Rick Naerebout of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association and Independent Milk Producers Cooperative, Inc. "We’re expecting 3% to 4% growth in Idaho milk production in 2014," he says. "We’ll be back to No. 3."
Both Idaho and New York are home to Chobani Greek yogurt plants, although it’s New York that’s the nation’s No. 1 yogurt state, according to a May 27 proclamation by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Still, Idaho has the larger of the two Chobani plants. Its Twin Falls yogurt plant, built in 2012, spans 1 million square feet – twice as large as the New York site -- making it the world’s largest dairy facility.
Chobani's yogurt processing plant in Twin Falls, Idaho spans 1 million square feet -- twice as large as its New York facility.
Idaho leads New York in cheese production, occupying third place after Wisconsin and California. In fact, Idaho remains chiefly a cheese processor, while New York has seen a dramatic increase in its processing capacity and dairy product lines over the last few years.
"New York’s dairy industry doesn’t specialize in any one product," says Cornell University dairy economist Andrew Novakovic. "While it’s not No. 1 in any of the major categories, it’s a top producer of many products. Only California rivals it for both size and diversity."
New York’s consumer-intensive dairy products include yogurt, fluid milk, butter, cottage cheese, sour cream, Italian-style cheeses, evaporated milk products such as coffee and energy drinks, and other dry ingredients. New York counts 112 licensed processing plants.
New York dairy producer Jon Patterson.
"More plants are coming online all the time," says dairy producer Jon Patterson of Auburn, N.Y. "Anything we can do to increase demand for milk is a good thing."
Patterson himself is a co-owner, along with 25 other local dairy producers, of the new Cayuga Milk Ingredients plant, which just came online last week near Auburn. The plant will produce high-end powders for the global market.
The two states operate in sharply different dairying environments, Novakovic points out. "Idaho is a low population state, dominated by a few local plants," he says. "It’s an excellent place to grow alfalfa and other roughages."
New York dairies operate "in one of the most dense, urban areas on the planet," says Novakovic. "Agriculturally, there are a lot more challenges in New York than in Idaho."
Among those are New York’s older, thin, rocky soil, its hilly topography and its much wetter climate. "You’ve got to be incredibly careful about run-off and where your lagoon is," he says.
Despite their differences, New York and Idaho share similar concerns. Each sees immigration reform as a much-needed step for dairies. "It’s an ongoing issue," Patterson says.
"Border security is clearly working, and our labor pool is getting smaller," adds Naerebout. "It’s getting harder to find and keep good labor. The fix has to come from Washington, D.C."
Both also are warily watching what federal agencies have in store for dairies and other agricultural operations. New York dairies are gearing up for random visits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), beginning in July. Next month’s random spot checks will ensure that dairies are following safe practices for chemical use, training, equipment and animal handling and more.
"Everybody is dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s," Patterson says. "But OSHA’s closer eye is good for the industry and its employees."
Idaho producers are paying close attention to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as to citizen lawsuits in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Based on a disputed groundwater study, EPA entered into tough consent decrees with four Yakima Valley dairies last year. That opened the door for two environmental groups to sue the same dairies, alleging that their manure management practices violated federal law by allowing lagoons to leak and by over-applying manure nutrients to fields.
EPA’s enforcement actions "makes producers wary of regulators," says Naerebout. "If EPA makes a mistake, it can cost producers and the industry a lot of money."
The Idaho dairy industry, through its legal defense fund, is helping cover part of the cost of the four dairy producer families fighting the lawsuits.
Those concerns aside, Idaho and New York dairy farmers – like their fellow producers across the country -- are enjoying this year’s record prices of $22 per cwt. and higher. "Everybody’s doing quite well," says Naerebout.
At his New York dairy, Patterson is working to take advantage of the historic dairy market. He’s decided to hold off building a new barn, choosing instead to increase production in his 1,100-cow herd. He’s hoping to boost output to 95 lb. and higher of milk per cow per day, up from the current 90 lb. "We’re trying to build a stronger business to ride out the next down cycle," Patterson says. "We know today’s prices aren’t going to last forever."
In an outlook surely shared far beyond New York, he adds, "For now, they give us hope for the future."