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Montana, Wyoming see stability in milk production, dairy sector

Editor’s note: In our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese
Market News has taken a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examined a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our final states — Montana and Wyoming.

By Rena Archwamety

Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX
SCENIC PASTURE — Montana is home to 53 dairy farms and Wyoming is home to seven. While dairy farm numbers have declined some, milk production has remained relatively stable in this region.

MADISON, Wis. — Montana and Wyoming are home to vast open ranges of land and beautiful mountains, along with about 60 dairy farms — 53 in Montana and 7 in Wyoming, according to Bill Keating, senior director, industry image and relations for Dairy MAX, the regional dairy council checkoff that represents both states.

There are three major milk processing plants in Montana — two Meadow Gold plants in Billings and Great Falls, and one Darigold plant in Bozeman, Montana. Wyoming has no major processing plants but does have Meadow Gold distribution sites.

While the number of dairies have decreased along with national trends, milk production remains steady, and locally-produced milk is plentiful.

“While we continue to see a contraction in the number of dairy farms in Montana, the volume of milk produced within the state has remained remarkably stable,” says Mike Honeycutt, executive director, Montana Department of Livestock. “This is due to the proficiency and efficiency achieved by our dairy producers. The processing facilities who prepare this product for the marketplace also remain healthy and support many jobs and the local economy in their communities. We are lucky that the vast majority of milk that is consumed by Montanans at home, in schools or in the foodservice sector is produced and processed right here in our state. We are meeting the dairy market demands of our state’s citizens while also producing excess for export to neighboring states.”

Keating says he foresees little change in the future, especially with the recent acquisition by Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) of Dean Foods, which owned the Meadow Gold facilities in the region.

“I think the Dean Foods buyout by DFA is going to provide stability for our farmers in Montana. Since they furnish a good deal of the fluid milk in Montana, I feel that will continue,” Keating says.

• Dairy farming

“Some people think of Wyoming as just flat and natural land, but so much of it is just spectacular. We have dairies in the southern portion of Wyoming, up near the Cody/Powell area and in the Star Valley on the Idaho border,” Keating says, noting that Wyoming and Montana also are business-friendly and cows do exceptionally well in the climate.

Seth George is a third-generation dairy farmer on George Farms outside Cody, Wyoming, at the base of the Beartooth Mountains near the Montana border. His grandfather, a World War II veteran, won a lottery for a homestead in Wyoming, and his grandparents started dairy farming in 1953. Today the farm, owned by George’s father and two uncles, milks about 600 cows.

“We love dairying here. Wyoming and Montana have beautiful country and a lot of freedom,” George says. “We raise our own feed and have ground to do that. We raise good quality hay in Wyoming and Montana. We don’t deal with a lot of moisture like other parts of the country and don’t deal with plant or animal pests as other warmer climates do. We don’t have extreme heat and humidity.”

Challenges in the region include a shorter growing season, cold winters and cost of transportation.

“We do deal with pretty extreme cold in the winter, which presents its own set of challenges,” George says.

“One of the other challenges is transportation. In the wintertime, road conditions aren’t great and we’re just a long ways away from everything. The closest processing plant is 90 miles. The next one is twice that. Options are more limited.”

The farm’s cooperative, DFA, and the Meadow Gold plant it supplies offer great support, George notes, as do a couple of dairy supply companies in Montana that service the farm.

“Compared to a lot of dairy farms, you’re on your own a little bit,” George says. “We have a nutritionist in Idaho, but we’re a long ways away from there. You kind of learn to be a little resilient.”

Montana is unique in that it has a state-run Board of Milk Control, attached to the Department of Livestock, which helps maintain a stable milk market through regulating minimum prices, monthly pooling and quotas.

• Helping neighbors

George, who sits on the board of Dairy MAX, notes Montana has a number of dairy farms ranging from about 100-500 cows that belong to Hutterite communal colonies.

“There are lots of Hutterite colonies in Montana, and the majority of them have a dairy farm,” he says. “They’re wonderful operations, very clean, and kind of traditional, family-oriented. They embrace a lot of good technology and have really wonderful cows and farms anyone would be proud of.”

Keating notes that Dairy MAX has been doing a lot of work through Montana’s food bank system to provide extra milk to families in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

“In fact, the Hutterite colonies in Montana donated 12,000 gallons to the food banks,” he says. “The Hutterites donated the milk, and Meadow Gold and Cargill Animal Nutrition paid for processing and distribution.”

George says there is a lot of support from local communities in Montana and Wyoming for local farms and locally-raised products. He also sees the dairy industry in these states continuing to remain stable.

“Honestly, I see us staying where we’re at,” he says. “In the dairy industry in general, I think people are trying to do a good job and make this wholesome product that is good for our communities. The ag climate — not just for dairy but everywhere — I think will stay where we are for a while.”

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