Washington is the 10th largest milk-producing state in the nation and the outlook for the industry is improving, an industry spokesman says.
“We have stayed stable in terms of the number of farms at 460 to 480 for a number of years and that’s very reassuring because for a very long time the trend has been toward consolidation here and nationwide,” said Blair Thompson, director of consumer communications at the Washington State Dairy Products Commission in Lynwood.
Higher milk prices have helped producers in the short term but have been largely eaten up by higher feed costs, Thompson said. That’s improved slightly now as feed costs have dropped a bit, he said.
The long-term outlook is improving because dairies are diversifying income by bottling their own milk and selling it under their own name, producing artisan cheese and, “the most promising thing,” finding value in manure, Thompson said.
New technologies are allowing phosphorous, nitrogen and other items to be separated out of manure and utilized, providing income, he said. Wine grape growers love fibrous compost from dairy manure as nutrients for vineyards, he said.
Dairy foods are Washington’s second largest agricultural commodity with a 2013 direct value of $1.28 billion, he said.
From 1978 through 2013, the number of dairy farms in Washington declined 72 percent, the number of dairy cows increased 43 percent and milk production increased 136 percent, he said. The state produced 6.3 billion pounds or 735 million gallons of milk in 2013 compared with 5.5 billion pounds or 680 million gallons in 2003, he said.
Production has been increasing in recent years because of genetics, diet and animal care, Thompson said. “Happy, healthy cows produce more milk,” he said.
A fair amount of milk is exported by Darigold to Pacific Rim nations, he said.
Dan DeRuyter, co-owner of George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy, near Sunnyside, said Washington dairies are progressive in animal husbandry and nutrient waste production.
“From a global standpoint, we can compete. Darigold is a major exporter and becoming very well known for quality,” DeRuyter said.
His dairy is in Yakima County, which is the 11th largest milk producing county in the nation. His dairy and two neighboring ones reached a legal agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 to reduce nitrates, improve water quality and provide alternate drinking water for residents close to the dairies even though they maintain it has not been proven their dairies have caused high nitrate levels the EPA found in wells.
DeRuyter said he’s about the start the first phase of upgrades and expansion of his manure digester to lessen nitrates and produce renewable natural gas. The expanded system would serve his dairy and one other. A new centrifuge will reduce phosphorous 80 to 90 percent in liquid fertilizer applied to fields and nitrogen by 40 percent, he said. A second phase will reduce nitrogen by 60 or 70 percent, he said.
DeRuyter started planning the project before EPA threatened enforcement action.
“As rough as things have been made for us, I really am optimistic,” DeRuyter said. “The technology is coming along that I think we not only will be sustainable but will be a bright spot in the community.”