Grain Bins


Celebrating South Dakota’s vibrant dairy industry during National Dairy Month

Posted on June 09, 2021
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Nothing tastes better on a hot summer day than a cool, creamy ice cream cone. Perhaps you prefer to pile on the cheese on top of your pizza, or maybe you’d rather sneak in a glass of milk with your cookies before bed. All of which is brought to you by your fellow farmers in the dairy industry.

Across the country, many think of Wisconsin or even California when it comes to states with booming dairy industries. However, farmers right here in South Dakota produce some of the highest quality milk and dairy products.

In fact, between 2007 and 2017, dairy cattle populations have increased 43%, making South Dakota a leader in the Northern Great Plains. Not to mention, milk production in the state has increased nearly 70% in the same period, with increased capacity for additional processing operations.

As demand continues to grow for dairy across South Dakota, here are some of the reasons behind the growth and a look at where the industry is heading.

Explosion of growth

Without a doubt, South Dakota has one of the fastest-growing dairy industries compared to any other state in the country. Tom Peterson, Executive Director with South Dakota Dairy Producers explained that South Dakota is an exceptional place for the industry, complete with all the right ingredients for success.

“In talking with dairy farmers who have expanded or moved to South Dakota, a common theme is that South Dakota is a great place to do business,” said Peterson. “It is relatively farm-friendly as far as environmental regulations, however, still taking good management practices by the farmers to meet requirements to be good stewards of the land and water.”

He said for dairy farmers specifically, the availability of sites to build a dairy on and nearby feed sources, such as abundant corn, is a tremendous benefit. They also mention the collaboration among the entire dairy community to position the industry for growth as another reason why they set their sights on South Dakota.

“Cooperation between state officials, dairy processors, dairy farmers, the SDSU Dairy Science program, and many others has led to the creation of the South Dakota Dairy Drive, a virtual movement which has resulted in nearly doubling the number of milk cows over less than a 20-year period of time,” said Peterson.

He did note, however, that the biggest piece of the equation is still perfecting the balance of processor capacity and milk cows to fill the demand. Companies such as Agropur and Valley Queen have undergone significant expansions in capacity and Bel Brands came to South Dakota opening another market for milk, which led to an expansion of demand for dairy processing capacity in South Dakota, as well as creating more opportunities for an expanded industry in the state.

Corn and dairy connection

With the abundance of corn grown in the state, it’s a no-brainer for farmers to raise their dairy cows where feed is plentiful. Part of the feed comes from fuel—thanks to dried distillers grains (DDGs) resulting as a coproduct from the strong ethanol industry right here in our backyard.

Full of protein and nutrients for cattle, DDGs can effectively comprise up to 40% of cattle diets and can even include extra energy intake for the animals. This important source of energy, protein, digestible fiber, minerals and vitamins also helps improve the operating efficiency of ethanol plants and makes multiple uses for our state's corn.

Not to mention, South Dakota offers a premier environment for farmers to easily work together and support one another. With the ideal cow climate, a proper amount of land available and reasonable feedstock, dairy cow populations in the state have increased 32.9% over the past 10 years, according to data from GOED.

Peterson pointed out that the dairy industry is unique when it comes to its relationship with corn and soy.

“Dairy farmers who produce their own crops, in many cases, are fellow members of row crop associations, heavily involved in their communities, and have a similar interest in markets such as ethanol and livestock production since grain not used for their own livestock needs is marketed to other opportunities. Both crop producing and crop purchasing dairy farmers are probably purchasing and feeding the ethanol by-product of DDGs and soybean meal, creating another market for corn and soybean farmers."

Educating the future of Dairy

In South Dakota, the dairy industry goes beyond so much more than just milking cows on our dairy farms and producing high-quality corn feed and DDGs that feed the cattle.

Adapting to the future of the industry is important to many agricultural leaders and a driving factor behind the innovative dairy education programs at South Dakota State University. Peterson said that the dairy science program is unique in that SDSU is only one of two universities offering dairy production and dairy manufacturing degrees under one department.

“Students majoring in Dairy Manufacturing are a huge benefit to South Dakota’s many processing plants,” said Peterson, “providing a steady streamline of skilled workers required by today’s technical and innovative processing facilities.”

In the program, students will have opportunities to see and experience technologies on a dairy farm such as robotic milking and much more. They will also see how the process of milk production integrates with other areas of sustainable agriculture on the precision side since the dairy cows have a diet that begins with crops produced in the soil. Not to mention, over 12,500 jobs in South Dakota related to the dairy industry, and that number is only projected to grow, as is the $3 billion impact to the state’s economy.

More on National Dairy Month

As we celebrate National Dairy Month in June, be sure to catch our latest Farming in the 605 podcast episode featuring Lucas Lentsch, Chief Federation Officer with Dairy Management, Inc., the organization that manages the national dairy checkoff.

Each week, our host Mike Pearson sits down with different agriculture industry leaders and newsmakers to bring farmers in South Dakota the conversations on topics that impact our industry.

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