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Published May 16, 2015, 06:51 PM

Despite decline in North Dakota's dairy industry, one operation still thrives

Victor Camacho's face was only a few inches from that of a Holstein heifer. Camacho, holding a bottle in the mouth of the heifer's slick newborn calf, nodded at the mother as she walked in tight circles around her newborn.

By: Garrett Richie, Forum News Service

LAKOTA, N.D. -- Victor Camacho's face was only a few inches from that of a Holstein heifer.

Camacho, holding a bottle in the mouth of the heifer's slick newborn calf, nodded at the mother as she walked in tight circles around her newborn.

As Camacho tickled the calf's back to stimulate its shaky leg muscles, more Holsteins wandered over from feed piles to peer over the gate at the newborn.

"They all want to mother that baby," said Kent Swenson, who runs Dusty Willow Dairy with his wife, Laurel, and their 24-year-old son Cameron.

The newborn calf -- struggling to take its first steps under Camacho's supervision -- was yet another dairy cow added to the Swensons' 800-cow family dairy, one of the larger dairies in North Dakota.

Dusty Willow Dairy is a surviving family dairy in a national environment where the number of small or family dairy farms has been shrinking in favor of fewer, larger corporate dairies.

Swenson said only 20 percent of dairy farms in North Dakota are as big or bigger than Dusty Willow Dairy, which employs between 15 and 17 full-time workers and produces about 6,200 gallons of milk per day.

But that hasn't always been the case.

Thirty years ago, the Swenson family had one barn out of which they first began selling milk from 11 cows.

At that time, small family dairies across the state were much more prevalent. There was even a cheese plant right in Lakota.

Cameron Swenson began helping with the calves when he was 8, and employees would pay him $1 per hour to do jobs they didn't want to.

Skip ahead 30 years, and North Dakota's dairy landscape is very different. While the Swenson farm has grown, the number of dairy farms across the state has shrunk dramatically.

"When we first started selling milk in 1985, there were probably 50 or better dairies in the county," he said. "Now I think we're the only one."

Despite the dwindling number of dairies, Cameron Swenson is still on the family farm.

Now 24 and out of school, he has spent the past year working full time with the farm, which has expanded greatly since the time he was a child doing miscellaneous farm chores.

"I'm still doing the things no one else wants to do," he joked.

From bottle-feeding newborns to artificial insemination, Dusty Willow Dairy has the right mix of size and family business to stay afloat as dairy declines.

Walking through his barns -- among the cows that he has worked with for much of his life -- Kent Swenson talks about the cow's habits, how they play and interact with each other.

"It's very rewarding working with cows," he said, adding that the most rewarding part is watching the young heifers grow up healthy.

Cows walk near and lick his hand, the hands of employees and even the hands of visitors. Kent Swenson said there is something calming about working with cows. Cows, unlike people, can't send you rude emails and don't get cranky with you when they're having bad days.

Kent's connection to the cows and personal involvement with the operation -- 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days per week -- is what one would expect from a family farm operation, despite the farm's large scale.

"We of course hate to see dairies quit," he said."It's sad to see small dairies sell out. But once we made the decision to do the expansion, the fact that other dairy farms were quitting didn't really impact us."

Grow or quit

In 1999, the Swenson family faced a choice.

In an economic landscape where dairies were either growing to achieve economies of scale or selling out, there were only two options.

"We had to expand," Swenson said. "It was either that or quit."

So expand they did.

Kent and Laurel Swenson Dairy joined with outside investors to form Dusty Willow Dairy, which was built for 400 cows but still allows room to expand.

By 2009, the partnership disbanded. But the current, family-owned operation now milks 800 cows.

According to a study by the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, the expanded Dusty Willow fits the profile of a decades-long trend of dairy farms decreasing in number but growing in size.

Between 1970 and 2006, the number of farms in the U.S. with dairy cows fell from 648,000 to 75,000, or 88 percent, but the size of the remaining farms grew more than sixfold.

The number of total dairy cows only fell from 12 million to 9.1 million, which means the average size of a dairy farm grew from 19 cows per farm to 120.

Recent numbers from North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring also fit the national trend of farms beginning to either grow or specialize in dairy.

According to estimates he provided for a Bismarck Tribune article, North Dakota had 350 dairy farms in 2000 and boasted 49,000 dairy cows. By 2015, those numbers have dropped to 91 dairy farms and 16,000 dairy cows.

While these dairy farms are already shrinking in number and growing in size, this trend could accelerate due to the recent passage of North Dakota Senate Bill 2351, which lifted the ban on corporate farming for dairy and swine farms. The new law allows dairy farmers in the state to form corporations for the first time in 83 years, while also encouraging more dairy farmers to come to the state.

Day on the farm

At Dusty Willow, the original barn has grown into a full system of barns and buildings. Kent's brother grows much of the farm's feed on the farm's acreage, while certain supplements are purchased.

There are separate barns for calves, where bleaty mooing sounds fill the air every few seconds. Bottles and milk sustain them for 10 weeks until grain feed is mixed into their diet.

From there they move to other, bigger barns as they grow older.

By the time they weigh 1,500 pounds -- which is sometime before they turn 3 -- they are ready to be inseminated and produce milk for the time.

At Dusty Willow, milking is still done manually, with two milkers manipulating the 4-tubed, squid-like milkers through two rows of cows. Milkers work in 12-hour shifts, with milking continuing around the clock. The dairy produces 80 pounds of milk per cow per day.

Swenson said cows are milked approximately 300 days a year, with a couple of months between to rest in the pasture on what Swenson referred to as "vacation."

With so many cows either producing milk, in heat or growing from 90-pound calf to adult, there is plenty to track.

From the farm's main office -- which is decorated with spotted cowhides and whitetail deer mounts and a break room sporting walls painted with cow spots -- the Swensons can oversee the computer system that monitors their cows.

With 800 cows to track, the computer monitoring helps them to keep tabs on how long cows are chewing their cud -- ideally 10 hours per day -- and how high their activity level is, which can indicate when a cow is in heat and ready for artificial insemination.

While so much tracking might seem overwhelming, the dairy's large-scale operation has been important to the dairy's success while other small dairies have disappeared.

The farm's output is enough to produce a full tanker-load of milk every single day, which optimizes the efficiency of freight costs.

Because all the milk in the tanker is from one source, it must only be tested once, and the buyer knows the milk is coming from one place.

In Dusty Willow's case, that buyer is Land O' Lakes.

Most of the dairy's milk goes straight to the bottle in either Fargo or Thief River Falls.

For the Swensons, through the dairy industry's ups and downs -- despite changes in feed and labor, as well as a nearly $10 decrease in the price of a hundredweight of milk between this year and last -- the family business has stayed afloat.

"It's like any other business," Swenson said.

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