SDSU to close dairy production facility, disperse herd

Change will not affect degree offerings

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BROOKINGS, S.D. — After three years of looking for a way to plan, budget and build a new dairy production facility at South Dakota State University in Brookings, the effort has been deemed unfeasible. The university will instead close the facility and disperse its dairy herd by the end of June.

Dr. Joe Cassady, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences for SDSU, said the decision was difficult.

“People’s reactions to that are what you should expect when hard decisions get made about programs that matter,” Cassady said.

However, the closing of the facility will not affect degree offerings.

“We are not getting rid of any majors,” Cassady said. “We have three majors in the department — food science, dairy manufacturing and dairy production, with dairy production being the on-farm production of milk. Food science and dairy manufacturing are functionally not impacted by the closing of the farm.”

Only the dairy production facility will close.

“We are not closing the Davis Dairy Manufacturing Plant; people have been confused about that,” Cassady said. “The making of the cheese and the ice cream and all of those things will continue as normal. The only change for (the plant) is that they will source their milk commercially because we will not be producing milk at our own university-owned farm.”

Since the Davis Dairy Manufacturing Plant was paying the university’s farm for milk at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s milk price, Cassady said the university is not anticipating there being a financial impact to the plant.

For SDSU’s dairy production major, the university plans to partner with nearby dairy farms as sites to offer student experiences, education and research opportunities.

“We want to continue to provide a quality educational experience to the students in that major, and that can best be done at this point by partnering with local dairies, several of which we’ve had long-term working relationships with in support of our research and our teaching,” Cassady said. “It will absolutely be different. We’re not going to try to replace what we had. What we’re going to do is look at the teaching outcomes that we have for dairy production and then work with our friends and local dairies to find strategies to most effectively meet those teaching outcomes. We feel confident that we can get our students out on those farms.”

This school year, 23 students are in the dairy production program at SDSU. The announcement that the dairy production facility would close drew concerns and questions from them as well as students with related majors. After the announcement was made, Cassady set up a meeting with students.

“When I sat down with them, I said that I would not leave my chair until I’d heard every comment and every question,’” Cassady said. “I was there for two hours and 40 minutes.”

Over 50 students attended the town hall, with eight remaining until the end, Cassady said.

“I did the best I could to be there and listen and share and respond to the extent that I am able,” Cassady said. “They are hurt, they are upset, and they are disappointed — and that’s not surprising. Honestly, if they weren’t hurt, upset and disappointed, it would mean that this wasn’t important and our program didn’t matter, but our program is important, and it does matter.”

Cassady said the university is determined to give students the top-notch education in the dairy production major that it always has.

“I’m hopeful that people will give us a chance to demonstrate that we can provide a high-quality education, give our students even more exposure to modern, well-run dairy facilities, and, in doing so, better enable our students and contribute in a positive way to workforce needs in the dairy industry in South Dakota,” he said.

The decision to close the dairy production facility was made after it became clear to stakeholders that the current facility could no longer viably be used. At the same time, funds could not be raised in sufficient amounts to build a facility to meet current and future needs.

The dairy houses approximately 135 lactating cows. Cassady said about two-thirds of the facility’s footprint — all of the heifer development space, dry cow space, offices, locker rooms, classrooms, shop, feeding support facilities — was built in the early 1960s. The double-8 parallel parlor and freestall barn opened new in 1994. 

“Obviously, the 60-year-old facilities are far beyond their intended life for use, and the 30-year-old facilities are certainly in need of some significant renovation,” Cassady said.

In 2019, the university applied for available funds to build a facility.

“An effort was put together to build a new dairy,” Cassady said. “Some of our stakeholders, with the best of intentions, went to the legislature and were able to get an appropriation for $7.5 million out of COVID funds. That appropriation was approved pending upon us finding matching funds.”

The university would then have a total budget of $15 million for a facility.

“We were working on trying to raise those funds while at the same time working to put together a plan for the new dairy,” Cassady said. “Initially, what was proposed was building a 500-cow dairy from the ground up, but it became apparent very early on in the process that we could not build a 500-cow university dairy with everything that entails for $15 million.”

After significantly reducing the scope of the project, they could not make any viable plan work for $15 million.

“As a point of reference, it’s my understanding that Michigan State University is replacing their dairy that was also built in the 1960s and building a 680-cow dairy, and they are going to spend $75 million,” Cassady said. “I don’t know what kind of bells and whistles are in that dairy — and we do not need 680 cows, and we do not need $75 million — but it’s a long way from $15 million to $75 million.”

At the same time, SDSU was finding it challenging to raise the $7.5 million needed to match the state.

Donors did contribute. For instance, South Dakota Dairy Producers committed $500,000, and others committed large dollar amounts as well. However, enough big-donor support could not be located. Without a cornerstone donor or donors, Cassady said, the university could not raise the full amount needed.

“We believed it was no longer responsible to continue the current dairy in its present state, so the decision was made that we were going to discontinue the production of milk and liquidate the cow herd at the dairy, and the goal is to have that all done by the end of June,” Cassady said. “I’ve never, ever said that I don’t want us to have a dairy farm. I’ve said it is not practicable to continue to operate the current farm in its present condition, and those are two very different things.”

If the right donors with a feasible plan appear, Cassady said, the university would be open to reconsidering.

“At no point have I ever rejected the idea that somebody will come forward with a functional plan and the funding to support a new dairy,” Cassady said. “If someone does that, I will be delighted to talk with them.”

Plans for what to do with the dairy production facility once it is closed are being decided and will take time. Because the facility is a public site, Cassady said, costs for tearing it down would need to be determined and funds identified for a teardown before the legislature would approve such a plan. Also, it has not yet been ascertained by the university whether the facility or parts of it could be useful in some other way.

In the meantime, SDSU is working to create approaches to ensure its dairy production students’ needs are met and that the university remains a hub for dairy education.

“The dairy industry is very important to South Dakota — the I-29 corridor has percentage-wise been the fastest growing dairy area in the U.S.,” Cassady said. “We’re aware of that and very proud of that, and we intend to continue to support the dairy industry here in South Dakota. We’re confident we can do that with or without an operating dairy farm.”

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