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Officials Say South Dakota Dairy Industry Booming

Credit Jenifer Jones
Dave Dulitz's dairy farm in Webster, SD

Agriculture is South Dakota’s largest industry and officials say the state’s dairy business is booming. They say crop conditions are favorable, a widening global marketplace is opening up, and cutting-edge infrastructure is helping revitalize the South Dakota dairy industry.

Farmers, ranchers, and ag officials are taking measures to embrace the burgeoning dairy industry in South Dakota – they say South Dakota dairy farmers are experiencing some of the best years they’ve had in decades.

With the help of his wife and children, Dave Dulitz has operated his family’s dairy farm in Webster for nearly thirty-years.

“When I started we put twenty-nine cows in the barn, and instead of having a cow deck that’s up at waist height so we could just reach right in, I would squat down, put a milker on each cow, and then when those twenty-nine cows were milked, we’d put ‘em out and fill the barn up again and milk those. It’s hard on the knees, it’s hard on my back, but I just kept doing it and tried to figure out a better way,” says Dulitz.

Dulitz says he has found better ways – in part with the help of the internet. He says he’s found valuable information on practices that make his family’s dairy farm more efficient - and the internet provides access to customers across the globe.

“The export market has been strong. The Chinese are trying to upgrade their diet and they’re importing huge amounts of dry milk products. The New Zealander’s have been supplying that market but they’re having quality problems as well as weather troubles and the United States is seen as a more reliable market and the Chinese respect our quality. We’ve had record high milk prices and it’s great to be making money,” says Dulitz.

Ag officials say South Dakota has the necessary infrastructure and state-of-the-art dairy processing plants that can compete with plants world-wide.

Roger Scheibe is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Dairy Producers. He says South Dakota is well on its way to being a viable player in the global dairy industry.

“We have 263 licensed dairy herds in South Dakota right now. We’re the 21st largest milk-producing state in the United States, and we produce 235-million gallons of milk and processed at nine plants in South Dakota. Now if you can visualize the average cow, and I believe that we have about 96,000 cows right now, the average cow in South Dakota produces 6.8 gallons of milk per day,” says Scheibe.

Scheibe says although international markets are opening up, crop conditions are favorable, and infrastructure is good – South Dakota is facing a potential shortage of professional commercial dairy farmers.

“If we go back into the 1980’s when we had high interest rates and farming wasn’t that great, it was really tough to stay in business, and most of our parents were telling their kids go to college and get a degree and find a job in the cities. Well that happened – we basically lost almost a generation of our young people in agriculture, and dairy specifically,” says Scheibe.

Scheibe says ag officials are taking measures to encourage young South Dakotans to stay in the state and pursue dairy farming. He says the industry’s future looks bright and opportunities do exist. He says dairies benefit South Dakotan’s because farmers buy local feed and supplies, dairies provide jobs, and they put young people into local school systems.

This story is a collaboration between SDPB reporters Amy Varland and Jenifer Jones.