Franklin County the fifth-largest dairy county in Washington

Franklin County's dairies have continued to grow, making it the fifth-largest dairy county in Washington.

Case VanderMeulen, owner of Coulee Flats Dairy near Mesa, decided to move his dairy operations from Sunnyside to Franklin County in 2008 for a chance to expand.

He has been able to grow his herd from about 3,000 milking cows to about 4,800 as a result of the move, he said.

"If you don't grow, you go backwards in today's world," he said.

Franklin County's growth helped contribute to the dairy industry's $5.2 billion annual impact to the state in 2011, according to a recent study by Washington State University.

Washington dairy farms alone were responsible for about $2.4 billion of that impact, a 61-percent increase from 2006, the study said.

Franklin, Yakima and Grant were the only counties among the state's 10 largest dairy counties that saw their dairy cow populations grow between 2006 and 2011, the study said. The others in the top ten saw decreases.

Yakima is the state's largest dairy county, followed by Whatcom and then Grant, the study said.

Franklin County saw the largest percentage increase in dairy cows, growing 88 percent to 12,000 in 2011, the study said. Overall, Washington's dairy herds added 23,000 cows in five years, reaching about 260,000 cows in 2011.

Shannon Neibergs, WSU extension economic specialist and associate professor, authored the study with WSU assistant professor Michael Brady.

Milk production has shifted -- Eastern Washington dairies now provide more milk than those in Western Washington, Neibergs said. Eastern Washington represented about 45 percent of the milk production in 2006 and 55 percent in 2011.

It may be easier for dairies to expand in Eastern Washington and the cost of production may be less, since some feed does not have to be transported as far, Neibergs said. Price variability and increasing production costs are challenges for the industry.

"They have a lot of financial risk that they are always dealing with, yet they are contributing to the economy," he said.

Milk prices jumped from $12.60 to $20.70 per hundred weight between 2006 and 2011, Neibergs said.

But the higher prices were vital for dairies to stay in business and be able to expand, he said. That's because at the same time, the cost of product increased, with record hay prices, growing grain prices, and rising labor and other operational costs.

VanderMeulen said expenses have grown faster than the income farmers get from milk, and price volatility continues to be a challenge. The profit margins continue to get smaller.

That drives a need for continued efficiency. Annual milk production per cow in Washington is up to about 23,727 pounds, a 3 percent increase between 2006-11. Each of VanderMeulen's cows produces about 9.5 gallons of milk a day.

Dairy farmers are also trying to do a better job caring for their cows, he said, helping the farms become more sustainable.

Most of VanderMeulen's milk and that of other Franklin County dairies is made into cheese, he said. He is affiliated with Darigold, which is owned by the Northwest Dairy Association, a co-op representing about 85 percent of the dairy farmers in Washington.

About 90 percent of Washington milk is processed in-state, Neibergs said.

The dairy industry employs about 18,000 workers in Washington state, according to the study. Most of those jobs are connected to dairy farming. VanderMeulen's farm supplies jobs for about 57 workers.