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Celebrate opportunities in dairy

LEAD Comment: Modern dairies are comprised of people who are passionate about their industry, a Nebraska LEAD graduate says.

May 6, 2024

4 Min Read
Dairy cows in field
CELEBRATING DAIRY: Nebraska LEAD graduate Dan Rice has a wealth of international experience in the dairy industry. He touts the passionate people working on farms and in the industry, along with the industry’s ability to change with consumer needs. JW LTD/Getty Images

by Dan Rice

Dairy month in June celebrates great people, providing great care and producing great products.

The only thing constant in life is change, and the dairy industry is no exception. Our industry is changing rapidly and has been over my 40 years of involvement in dairying.

I have spent my life in the dairy business, developing brands from cow to consumer. I have experience managing dairy farmers, large and small, nationally and internationally. My expertise is in leading innovation throughout the dairy supply chain. I am a graduate of LEAD 24, and I currently serve as a senior consultant for Nationwide Insurance, focusing on dairy.

My wife and I live in Firth, Neb. Most recently, I served as CEO of Free-Range Dairy, an international grass-based dairy farm headquartered in New Zealand, Missouri and Oregon. Previously, I managed the launch of a2Milk Company; and I owned and operated Prairieland Dairy, Prairieland Gold and Prairieland Foods, all vertically integrated farming companies marketing ag products regionally in the U.S.

As I travel the world talking with dairy farmers, I am continually amazed at the diversity. In a single day, I visited a 50-cow dairy marketing milk directly to consumers, all the way to a dairy milking more than 100,000 cows three times a day in six separate locations.

Related:Start early: Teach youth about ag careers

It’s all about people

As much as things change, some things remain the same:

People. The passion, drive, determination and ingenuity of great people involved in dairy, and agriculture in general, is second to none. The ability to adapt to market trends, consumer demands and animal care has transformed this industry.

The common denominator among successful dairy farmers I work with is the passion and fortitude of the manager or owner to never give up. When I visit successful dairy farmers, they are not complaining about the milk price, the neighbor that expanded or the dairy co-op that does not pay enough for milk.

Successful dairy farmers are taking control of their operation by making long-term plans that fit their passion, strengths and abilities, and they are laser focused on implementing that plan. This passion and fortitude to never give up is equally applicable to everyone who is interested in succeeding no matter what business they are in.

Change. In the early 1990s, dairy products were marketed mainly as fluid milk in the U.S. Exports were very small (about 2% of annual production). The average size of a dairy farm was 60 cows. Fast forward to 2024, and more than 20% of milk produced in the U.S. is exported in some form.

This forced U.S. milk prices to be competitive with the international milk markets, causing more frequent price swings and overall lower milk prices. However, it is no different than any other business. We all love and enjoy living in this great country and want to hold true to the founding principles of our free enterprise system.

For some, it is viable to be the small farm at the edge of town with cows grazing in a pasture, but for most, there is a need to milk more cows to stay competitive.

No ‘one size fits all’ in dairy

In a free enterprise system, such as the one that made this country, everyone has the same opportunity to do business as they feel is best for their dairy operation. Big, small, organic, conventional, there is no system that fits us all.

My personal preference is to listen to our consumers about what they say verbally and what they do with their money. At times, consumers verbalize one thing and spend their money in a totally different way. In the end, the dairy industry has options for everyone.

The great thing about dairy is that our consumer has many options — local milk, organic, grassfed, a2 milk, whole milk, 2% milk, skim milk, shelf stable, extended shelf life, high protein, the list goes on and on. Our industry has options.

Size and scale bring efficiencies that are hard to compete with financially, and for this reason, dairies will continue to increase in size. At one time, I would have said size is a detriment to the welfare of cattle, but in today’s world, some of the best cow care and dairy management I have witnessed has been on large dairy farms.

In summary, I’m proud to have had a lifelong career in an industry with such great people, performing great cow care and meeting the consumers’ needs with so many options.

Rice is a graduate of LEAD 24.

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