The Arizona dairy industry has grown during the past several decades, particularly in Pinal County.
When Dennis Dugan, the dairyman at the helm of Triple D Dairy, came to Casa Grande in 1981, there were only two dairies in the area, he said.
Today, 25 dairymen preside over the 24 dairies within Pinal County that are home to about 72,000 cows, according to Keith Muirfield, CEO of United Dairymen of Arizona.
Most dairies have about 2,000 cows, so in addition to being plentiful, the Pinal dairies can also be large. Many are family-owned and have been passed down through generations.
Dugan and Muirfield said for the most part, the future of the dairies looks bright, provided major future challenges including water and labor can be resolved or at least mitigated.
A collaborative effort led by the 68-member United Dairymen cooperative and the city of Casa Grande recently convinced the Commonwealth-Ehrmann dairy partnership to build a Greek yogurt plant to Casa Grande. Franklin Foods followed the same route and set up a Greek cream cheese plant.
The plants don’t impact the dairies directly as far as workload is concerned.
“The dairies are probably going to milk about the same number of cows in Pinal County,” Muirfield said.
But their presence is still good news for dairies.
“It keeps us diversified in who we sell our dairy to,” Muirfield said.
That’s important when looking to the future because although all the milk produced is essentially the same, it gets classed into one of four grades by the federal grading system. That grade determines what dairy product the milk can be used for. Milk graded for use in cheese, for example, can’t be used to produce drinking milk.
By adding yogurt and cheese producers to their already-existing customer base — which includes Safeway, Shamrock Farms, Fry’s and Daisy — dairymen create more security within the industry.
“If the butter powder isn’t as good, maybe cheese is or maybe cream cheese is... so it just really keeps (the dairies) diversified,” Muirfield said.
Diversification, Muirfield said, will continue to be a focus of the regional dairy industry.
“We continue to see if there’s any other companies that want to move to Arizona to continue to diversify the product mix that the milk goes into,” Muirfield said.
Other potentially good news for Pinal County dairies is that future growth is likely and sustainable.
“There’s still room for more dairymen,” Dugan said. “There’s a lot of farmland down here.”
He said it’s likely that the nine dairies in the East Valley will move into the county within the next few years because the cities are pushing them out.
Diversification and growth are two factors dairymen can, to some degree, control.
But two of the main threats to dairy’s future success — water and labor — are less within their ability to shape.
To feed their cows the 80 pounds of feed per day they need, most dairymen grow their own crops. And those crops need water.
“Water is going to be a huge issue in the years and decades ahead,” Muirfield said.
A drought that’s held steady for the past 15 years and shortages from the Gila River could stifle the industry’s considerable potential.
“If we ever get out of this drought situation and the San Carlos (Irrigation and Drainage District) comes back online, we could produce another 50,000 acres of cropland,” Dugan said.
Water shortages limit the crops and drive up the cost of feed.
“The dairymen are very dependent on the feed costs of corn and cotton (seed) and alfalfa,” Muirfield said. “They need a margin difference between what the feed cost is and what they receive for the milk.”
Labor concerns also throw a shadow on the horizon.
Dugan said a large majority of dairy workers are Hispanic, so a long-term working visa program “would solve a lot of our labor problems.”
Other concerns stem from a growing population.
More neighbors also mean potential issues with urbanites unused to farms.
“I think all dairymen need to be cognizant of who the neighbors are and to work with the local neighborhoods,” Muirfield said. “That was something we never even thought about 10 years ago, but it’s changed.”
How much corn is used for ethanol can also negatively impact dairy farmers, Muirfield said.
Still, water and labor are at the forefront of most dairymen’s minds.
“Those will be our biggest problems over the next 20 years,” Dugan said.
The cream cheese and Greek yogurt plants are a good start, but Dugan said there’s room for other processors as well, specifically a Mexican cheese processor.
Dairymen also have their eyes on an expanding world market.
Muirfield said about 25 percent of milk is exported from the United States, an increase from 10 percent seven years ago. International clients include 29 countries in Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa.
Ensuring that the new market is an opportunity for, and not a detriment to, dairymen is important to the industry’s future, Muirfield said.
“(Dairy) is affected by the world markets now, and producers have had a couple of real bad years,” Muirfield said. “So obviously that hurts. If it’s not going to be beneficial, then they’re not going to keep that investment of millions and millions of dollars.”
Still, Muirfield said Pinal’s dairy future is something to look forward to.
“Pinal County is a county in Arizona that will continue to evolve and develop over the next decade,” Muirfield said.