Dairy industry meets to chart course

ST. PAUL — The Who's Who of Dairy Whoville gathered at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus Feb. 9 to chart a course for the industry's future.

County Commissioner Harlan Madsen speaks at the dairy summit, and assistant ag commissioner Charlie Poster looks on.

ST. PAUL — The Who's Who of Dairy Whoville gathered at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus Feb. 9 to chart a course for the industry's future.

Former state agriculture commissioner Gene Hugoson coined the phrase and served as moderator for the six-hour Dairy Summit that included a visit from Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, U of M president Eric Kaler and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner John Linc Stine.

The summit was intended as a kickoff and jumpstart for the state's dairy industry, Kaler said, but he preferred to view it as a celebration of the partnership between the U of M and the agricultural community.

The partnership between the university and the the state's dairy industry dates to 1891, when the Board of Regents began a Dairy Department by hiring Professor T.L. Haecker, of the University of Wisconsin. Haecker purchased cows for a college herd, promoted the cooperative creamery movement and is referred to as the "Father of Dairying" in Minnesota.

"Just like higher education, the dairy industry is changing," Kaler said. "We're all in the same shifting landscape of market-driven forces, consumer demands and work-altering technologies."


He told of the university's effort to reject complacency, or doing things a certain way because that's how they've always been done.

"From what I gather, the dairy community is today in that same eager space that we're in at the U," Kaler said. "You're eager to change while thoughtfully calibrating risk. You're eager to be bold while seeking a realistic and thoughtful path forward."

The dairy industry has both opportunities and challenges, said Mike Kruger, Midwest Dairy Association CEO. The state has a competitive milk price relative to other parts of the country and home-grown feed. It has infrastructure and a dairy heritage. The industry is challenged by an appreciation of land values, other profitable agricultural options and its location far from coastal export markets.

Yet, with coastal dairies exporting, Midwest dairies may have an opportunity to backfill those markets, Kruger said.

The opportunities for dairy outweigh the challenges, but leadership and broad industry support are critical to moving forward, he said.

"All dairy farmers need all dairy farmers," Kruger said.

Indeed, there is much diversity within the industry with dairy operations of all sizes using different types of housing. Some dairies rely on robotic milkers, some employ several people and some have a single proprietor or family operate the farm. There are grass-based dairies, conventional dairies, organic dairies and artisan dairies.

What will Minnesota's dairy industry look like 10 years from now? That's up to those gathered for the Dairy Summit, Kruger said.


Since the Minnesota Dairy Leaders Roundtable met for the first time in 1992, Minnesota's milk production has dropped 7.4 percent, said Marin Bozic, assistant professor in the U of M Department of Applied Economics and associate director of the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center. In that same time, Iowa's milk production has grown 16 percent, Pennsylvania's has grown 3.2 percent and Michigan's has grown 77 percent.

A cow in Michigan gives 25 percent more milk than a cow in Minnesota, he said.

Structural change is occurring, with more than a third of the nation's milk coming from herds of 2,000 cows or more and about 10 percent coming from herds of 100 to 200 cows.

In the 1990s, the mantra was get big or get out. Today, the mantra is get creative or get out, Bozic said. The creativity model will flourish if entrepreneurs are supported.

"Dairy has always been about adding value to our crops, bringing wealth to our communities," he said.

Smith said Minnesota is made for dairy and sustainable growth. She acknowledged that the state has more work to do in the regulatory arena and pledged to work with the industry on making continued progress.

Stine said dairy is good for soil health and water quality. It's a high performing industry.

The agency is committed to meeting permitting timeliness goals and 98 percent of the time meets a goal of responding within 150 days after a permit application is received.


Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said he's seen growing intolerance of a person's right to change. It's not so much the rules, it's the interpretation of the rules and the personalities involved.

People today are driven by health and their perception of health, he said. Consumers rely on the Internet for information and on the Internet, everyone can be an expert.

Farmers need to continually build relationships at the township, county and state level and they need to communicate.

Attendees gathered at their tables were asked to discuss three areas of work to focus on and to commit to what they would do in the next 30 to 90 days.

The three areas of work included:

• Market assessment, including viability of the Midwest dairy industry, the economic effect of dairy and product mix.

• Social license to operate, including food safety, animal care and message development.

• Dairy development, including labor and land availability, technology and new production models.


Hugoson said information from the meeting will be collected and mailed to participants during the next few weeks with quarterly updates based on what happened at the Dairy Summit.

What To Read Next
Get Local