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Western Kansas sees growth in dairy cattle operations

By TIM UNRUH

Special to The Hays Daily News

Packed with protein, vitamins and calcium, a basis for cheese, baked goods and a must-have for breakfast cereal, milk ranks high on the American diet and the Kansas economy.

More of it than ever is being squeezed from cows in dry and dusty western Kansas.

"It's viewed as a very favorable place to relocate or to start up," said Mike Bodenhausen, Muscotah, executive director of the Kansas Dairy Association.

The region has its share of issues -- water being a big one -- but the expansion of large dairy operations is helping out some areas.

On Wednesday, the McCarty Family Farms Dairy near Rexford in northwest Kansas will celebrate a direct marketing deal with yogurt maker Dannon.

The McCarty operation, which daily milks 7,200 cows in three dairies -- Rexford, Bird City and Scott City -- is among the latest to help the Kansas dairy herd grow from 85,132 cows in 1992, to 123,000 today and produce roughly 1,000 jobs, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

A general rule of thumb, according to Chelsea Good of the agriculture department, is every 80 to 150 cows requires one dairy employee.

Nearly 70 percent of the milk produced in Kansas comes from the 24 dairies in the state's western third, Bodenhausen said.

There are more than 300 dairies scattered throughout the state, ranging in size from fewer than 250 cows to 12,000.

Some are into niche markets, such as artisan cheeses, or bottling in glass jars, Good reported.

Thanks in a large part to the growth in the western region, Kansas has moved up in the national milk production rankings from 25th to 17th. The agriculture department expects the state to be in the top 15 after this year.

So is western Kansas becoming a dairy mecca?

"We'd like to think so," Good wrote in an email.

Kansas dairies have proven more productive, averaging a record 1,820 pounds of milk per cow in April, which was a 1.8-percent increase from April 2011, Good reported.

The McCartys provided a boost to northwest Kansas since the family relocated from northeastern Pennsylvania in 1999.

"We had no concept there was going to be such an impact on schools and communities," said Ken McCarty, one of four brothers in the family business.

"Where we grew up, the economy was so diverse," he said. "The thought never crossed our mind."

Since the McCartys' 2,700-cow dairy opened near Bird City in the fall of 2008, the town has added 18 residents.

Same goes in southwest Kansas, where Syracuse and Hamilton County have feasted on the benefits of an influx of big dairies to the county and area.

The first of seven dairies moved into the region in the early 1990s, some from California. Hamilton County's population grew from 2,320 in 1994 to 2,690 last year, said Marcia Ashmore, the county clerk.

"The spike in population goes hand in hand with when the dairies came in," said John Kennedy, director of Hamilton County Economic Development.

"(Dairies) have been very active in the community, making donations to local fundraisers and events quite regularly," he said.

Enrollment at Syracuse schools grew from 460 in 1992 to 490 last year, Superintendent Joan Friend said.

"It's been a dramatic change," she said. "The biggest change is in demographics."

Hispanic students accounted for 25 percent of enrollment in 2003 in the junior high and high school.

"Right now, we're sitting at 46 percent at the junior-senior high school, and it's 60 percent in the elementary," Friend said. "We were losing enrollment until the dairies came in."

Dairy employees are "hard workers," she said, but some of the families are migrants, meaning they tend to stay a few months in a community and then move.

The school district has adjusted to the associated challenges, Friend said, and is keeping up federal requirements to show improvements on test scores.

Other economic factors -- a cattle feedlot has shut down -- has the school district predicting 15 to 20 fewer students when classes start up in the fall.

"It would be a great thing if they could get wind farms into southwest Kansas," Friend said. "The problem is transmission lines."

Dairies have stabilized the economies of some western Kansas counties, the dairy association's Bodenhausen said.

Western Kansas offers a dry climate with enough resources to support the dairy industry.

"There are some spots where dairies have found a good water source. That is the key," he said. "First of all, you've got to get enough land to get the water rights and enough land to adequately dispose of your solid waste."