Ag’s good news, bad news: Milk plant, drought | nnbusinessview.com

Ag’s good news, bad news: Milk plant, drought

Anne Knowles
aknowles@nnbw.biz
The Dairy Farmers of America's milk processing plant in Fallon is slated to begin operating in the second quarter.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DFA |

Fallon’s new milk processing plant is set to begin production in March, making 2014 a banner year for northern Nevada’s agricultural industry.

But the celebration won’t last long if the winter’s snow doesn’t bring relief from the state’s ongoing drought.

“If we don’t have an exceptional year, we’re going to be in big trouble,” says Jay Davison, a specialist in alternative crops and forage with the University of Nevada, Reno, Cooperative Extension. “We had some (water) storage last year, but now it’s very low.”

“Our storage is exhausted,” says Rick Lattin, owner of Lattin Farms in Fallon. “We are extremely concerned about water. If we don’t get some good precipitation, we’re going to have to pull in the reins.”

That could run the gamut from concentrating on drip irrigation for high-value crops such as cantaloupe and eggplant to switching crops — planting sorghum rather than corn, for example, because it needs less water — to leaving some land fallow.

Davison says the price of alfalfa, which has held steady at about $200 per ton for several years, could go through the roof if the drought continues into 2014. That would force dairy farms to look for an alternative feed source.

Davison says the industry should have some idea of the water situation by February, at which point cooperative extension will plan seminars on drought management if needed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service delivers a final snow survey in April.

“The truth of the matter is we live in the driest state in the nation and it’s always smart to plan for dry conditions,” says Davison. “We’ll see what the heck happens.”

Meanwhile, the Dairy Farmers of America milk processing plant, slated to open this month, will begin processing milk in March, says Wesley Clark, the plant’s manager. Problems with construction of the plant’s stairs and platforms, which slowed equipment installation, caused the delay. In February, the plant will run the operation using water as a sort of test run with the goal of processing its first milk in March.

“Initially, we’ll ramp up from half million pounds a day to 2 million in the first six weeks,” says Clark, and test the equipment. The amount processed after testing will depend on orders, he says.

The plant is now training its 40 employees and has a budget for an additional five workers if and when needed.

Area dairy farms have been gearing up to meet demand at the new plant, according to Al Trace, director of member services for DFA’s Western Fluid Group.

“We have experienced moderate growth, including an expansion project to an existing farm that is well under way,” says Trace. “Additionally, a new 3,000-cow facility has also broken ground. We do anticipate more growth, both locally and in relocation projects, after the plant becomes operational.”

The new 3,000-cow farm is in Smith Valley. At full capacity, the plant would need milk from 20,000 cows.

Interest in gluten-free products continues to drive demand for teff, a grain used to make flour. Desert Oasis Teff, owned and operated by Dave Eckart and John Getto in Fallon, grows the grain as do other area farms, including Lattin Farms.

Davison is working with the USDA to find a way to combat armyworms, an outbreak of which hurt teff production this past year.

Lattin Farms, which grows teff on 40 acres, didn’t have a problem with infestation and says the grain is a great alternative crop.

“The market is expanding very quickly,” says Lattin. “You can sell the seed and the straw. It gives a nice return. It’s a good rotational crop.”