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Huge dairy farms planned in eastern North Dakota • Minnesota Reformer

The construction of two dairy farms in eastern North Dakota would more than quadruple the number of dairy cows in North Dakota and represent a dramatic change in the livestock industry in a state that has fallen behind its neighbors in cattle production.

Riverview Dairy, based in Morris, Minnesota, plans to build a 25,000-cow dairy farm southeast of Hillsboro in Traill County and a 12,500-head dairy north of Wahpeton in Richland County.

The Traill County dairy will create about 100 jobs and the Richland dairy will create 45 to 50 jobs, Riverview officials said.

Riverview held an open house on Tuesday in Halstad, Minnesota, the community closest to the proposed dairy in Traill County, to provide information and answer questions. There has been no similar event for the Richland County project.

Traill is an estimated $180 million project and Richland is $90 million.

Jim Murphy of the Traill County Economic Development Commission called it a “once in a lifetime event for any community.”

Randy Paulsrud is a neighbor who leases the land. He said at first he wasn’t happy about losing some of the land he farms for a dairy, but now he’s interested in selling feed to the dairy and buying fertilizer to fertilize other fields nearby.

“I agree,” Paulsrud said. He said he toured Riverview’s dairy near Gary, Minnesota, and was impressed. He said he wasn’t worried about the smell of the covered manure pits.

“Oh man, it was clean,” he said.

Leslie Viker, who owns the property in Herberg Township near Hillsboro where Riverview plans to build, said she plans to continue living near the dairy after it is completed.

“I think it will be great,” she said.

Martha Koehl, spokeswoman for Riverview, said the cows are kept in climate-controlled barns and the milking machines are operated 22 hours a day, with the remaining two hours used for cleaning.

Koehl said the projects depend on Riverview finding a market for the milk produced there. She could not give a specific timetable for the start of construction and operations.

The dairy industry in North Dakota has been in decline for decades. It has shrunk to about 10,000 dairy cows and only 24 dairy farms.

North Dakota Republican Rep. Dawson Holle of Mandan, who runs one of North Dakota’s largest dairy farms, said he has mixed feelings about the mega-dairy.

“I am very concerned if a large company and not a family business comes in,” says Holle, who runs a dairy farm with 1,100 cows.

Riverview is technically a limited liability company, not a corporation. The company has built other large dairy farms in Minnesota and is planning one in DeSmet, South Dakota.

One of Governor Doug Burgum’s goals for the 2023 legislative session was to relax North Dakota’s restrictions on owning livestock farms.

The legislature has passed a bill facilitating the introduction of external capital into modern livestock farms, which have become major investments.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said Riverview’s business structure would have allowed the company to operate in the state even without the changes, but he added that the law sends a message that the state is open to ranching projects.

Holle was among those who voted against the large-scale farm changes. Republican Rep. Mike Beltz of Hillsboro voted for the changes, crediting the changes in part for putting the dairy in his home district.

The legislature also passed a bill to support infrastructure projects related to agribusiness development. Beltz said the funds could be used to pay for improvements to the one-mile road that would connect the Traill County dairy to North Dakota Highway 200, and possibly for utility work as well.

“There are some opportunities for infrastructure work around the site,” Beltz said.

The Traill dairy will be named Herberg Dairy after Herberg Township and is planned south of North Dakota Highway 200 near the Red River, about 7 miles east of Interstate 29.

The Richland site would be in Abercrombie Township and called Abercrombie Dairy, about 7 miles north of Wahpeton. Riverview has already applied for a permit for this project from the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.

Todd Leake of Grand Forks County questioned whether state regulators are able to enforce environmental regulations on concentrated livestock operations.

Amber Wood, executive director of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance, is working to boost livestock production in the state.

She expects dairy growth to continue along the Interstate 29 corridor because of better access to milk processing and livestock feed.

Ethanol plants, sugar beet processing plants and new soybean processing plants in Casselton and Jamestown all produce byproducts that can be used as livestock feed.

American Crystal Sugar has a sugar beet plant in Hillsboro. The Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative has its only sugar beet processing plant in Wahpeton.

“Cattle love beet pulp,” Wood said.

Koehl said sugar beet pulp and soybeans could be part of the feed ration, which will consist mainly of corn and alfalfa hay.

A map of state Department of Agriculture dairy farms shows that there are none in operation in Traill County, but there is one in Richland.

In Morton County, where the famous dairy cow statue “Salem Sue” is located on Interstate 94 west of Bismarck, there are only four dairy farms left, including Holle’s.

While North Dakota’s dairy industry has been shrinking for decades, things got worse in 2023 when Prairie Farms Dairy closed its milk processing plant in Bismarck.

Holle said this forces him and others to send milk to a cheese factory in Pollock, South Dakota, about 90 miles south of Bismarck.

According to Holle, the milk used for cheese production is cheaper than fresh milk and the additional transport costs would reduce profits.

“Many dairy farmers are looking at the numbers and wondering what their future will look like,” said Holle.

North Dakota has fallen far behind its neighboring states in the livestock sector, especially in dairy farming.

Under Governor Dennis Daugaard (2011 to 2019), South Dakota placed an emphasis on livestock production and dairy cow numbers recovered. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of dairy cows in South Dakota increased from 96,000 in 2000 to 187,000 in 2023.

Holle said the North Dakota Department of Agriculture has not done enough to support the dairy industry.

“They can say they do a lot for North Dakota farmers, which they do, but they don’t do much for North Dakota’s livestock industry,” Holle said.

“There’s not much we can do,” Goehring said. “I mean, unless the legislature wants to do more, like build a processing plant, but I don’t think that’s going to happen either.”

He said the ministry could try to address some problems, “but it is a difficult challenge.”

A key resource for large dairies is water supply. They require 28 to 30 gallons of water per cow per day, Koehl said. That would equate to at least 700,000 gallons of water per day for the Traill County site and 350,000 gallons per day for the Richland site.

Koehl said Riverview Farms squeezes the liquid out of the manure, which can then be sent to fields as fertilizer. The solids in the manure are dried and used as animal bedding.

Koehl said the Traill dairy can bottle 22 tanker loads of milk, or about 7,900 gallons per tanker – more than 170,000 gallons per day.

Beltz said he was impressed by a tour of a Riverview dairy in Minnesota.

“You wouldn’t know you were standing on a property with so many animals,” Beltz said. “They’ve been here a while. They know how to do it right.”

This story first appeared in the North Dakota Monitor, a sister site of the Minnesota Reformer and part of the States Newsroom.