Heather Smith Thomas/For the Capital Press
BURLEY, Idaho — High Desert Milk represents the combined efforts of six dairy farmers who started a cooperative and now own a processing plant.
“We put this co-op together in 2001 as a way to increase the value of our product and provide a stable market for our milk,” member Randy Robinson says. “At first we sold milk to Glanbia, Jerome Cheese and whoever else needed milk. After a few years we decided to go the next step and built a processing plant of our own to produce non-fat dry milk.”
High Desert Milk prides itself on making the world’s best powdered milk.
“We built that plant in 2008 and more recently added a butter plant. We now process 2.5 million pounds of milk per day,” he said. “The six of us produce almost 3.5 million pounds of milk per day, and market the extra milk to other processors like Glanbia, Dairy Farmers of America and Chobani.”
In the near future, High Desert Milk plans another expansion and will be able to process the extra milk itself.
“Between the six of us we own 20 dairies and milk about 40,000 cows. We farm about 45,000 acres,” he says.
“We are a closed system, totally vertically integrated,” he says.
They grow their feed, milk the cows and own their trucks — High Desert Transport — to haul milk from the dairies to the plant.
“We have seven super-quads and hire our own drivers. We control everything involved in the process, from where the alfalfa grows and how it is irrigated to the end product. We have total traceability on our milk,” he says.
It’s somewhat unique for farmers to own a milk plant and do it all.
“We are not the only one in Idaho, however,” he says. “Idaho Milk Products in Jerome is basically the same; three farmers own that one. They patterned their operation after ours.”
The dairies and farms are all within 30 miles of Burley, which reduces hauling costs.
The dairies are various sizes.
“The smallest dairy milks 800 cows and the largest has about 10,000 cows,” he says. Most of the cows are milked three times a day.
Dairy is a booming $3 billion-a-year industry in Idaho, making it the largest sector of the state’s economy.
“Many people still think potatoes are number one but potatoes now rank number four. The ranking is dairy, beef cattle, tourism and then potatoes,” Robinson says.
“All six of us in our co-op used to grow potatoes and sugarbeets but we’ve converted our farms to alfalfa, corn and grain. We try to grow as much of our feed as we can, but we can’t grow enough alfalfa,” he says. “We still have to buy some, along with all the grain corn. That corn usually comes from the Midwest. All the corn grown here is used for silage.”
Robinson is one of the original six owners and has two dairies. All the dairies have several family members involved but he is the only one with a family member in the processing plant.
“I am CEO of the plant and my son Derrik is the general manager, but titles don’t mean much to us,” he says.
The milk plant and transportation system employ 120-130 people.
“We process milk 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are open around the clock, every day of the year.”
High Desert Milk Co-op
Location: Near Burley, Idaho
Owners: Six dairy farmers
Number of cows: 40,000
Processing capacity: 2.5 million pounds of milk a day