June is National Dairy Month, a time to celebrate and honor those working hard in the dairy industry.
South Dakota has become a popular destination for those looking to get their start in the dairy industry.
The Elliott family moved to Lake Norton from Northern Ireland in 2006 to pursue their dream of owning a larger dairy operation.
“We started with 1,400 cows and over the last 16 years we have gradually added and built more barns until now we are at 6,100 milking cows,” said Dorothy Elliott, owner of Drumgoon Dairy.
Now, Drumgoon Dairy is advancing, not only in size, but technology. They added a robotic barn in 2020, making the process of producing around 415,000 pounds of milk per day a little easier.
“It’s been a great learning experience here. I come from growing up milking in a tie-stall barn, to now overseeing the management of a robotic facility so that’s a drastic change, but it’s been very rewarding,” said Andrew Weber, herd manager.
Milk production is continuing to grow in the state, specifically along the I-29 corridor. South Dakota leads the nation in increased milk yield per year.
“South Dakota is unique because of the areas, you know, the size of the lands and even the connections with your neighbors. We have many many spaces, we have availability of resources,” said Maristela Rovai, SDSU extension dairy specialist and assistant professor.
One of the big factors drawing in producers is the dairy production facilities offered on the eastern side of the state, one of which is Valley Queen.
The factory was started in 1929, by Swiss immigrants Alfred Gonzenbach and Alfred Nef.
That year, they processed 3.2 million pounds of milk. Now, Valley Queen is processing 5 to 6 million pounds per day.
“Really it was slow and steady growth through the 50s, 60s and 70s. In the late 80s and early 90s there was a real growth in the I-29 corridor. Dairy has been embraced, we’ve seen dairies from Europe, dairies from Canada, dairies from the west coast from the 90s on moving to the I-29 corridor,” said Brian Sandvig, Chief financial officer, Valley Queen.
While many cheese factories have to travel hundreds of miles to get milk, Valley Queen works with 41 local dairies within 80 miles of the plant. The company also hauls the milk themselves and has employees on site at each dairy every day.
“We get to work with the dairies to improve their systems so they are able to provide us with the highest quality milk, with the best components that we can make our product out of, and then they ultimately benefit from that because we are paying for that milk not just on a volume basis but ultimately on a component basis,” said Sandvig.
This year, Valley Queen began breaking ground on its $195 million expansion project. This project will allow the company to add 140 jobs and bring in milk from 30,000 more cows, bringing production to 8 million pounds of milk processed per day.
“We are in the fortunate spot in between of being able to have increased supply, increasing demand, so we are actively working on a business plan to be able to keep up with that,” said Sandvig.
Those involved expect the dairy industry to continue growing throughout South Dakota in the next few years.
“I think that in a few years, we will be probably having double of the number of cows, we are around 160,000 cows right now. I can envision doubling it for sure,” said Rovai.
“But had someone said to us in 2006, you know by 2022 you’re going to be milking 6,100 cows, I would have been like ‘are you crazy? no that’s never happening’ but here we are today,” said Elliott.
According to the International Dairy Foods Association, in South Dakota the dairy industry has a nearly five billion dollar total economic impact on the state and creates more than 14,000 jobs.