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Published November 05, 2009, 05:47 AM

North Dakota: A Dairy frontier

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CARRINGTON, N.D. — The Van Bedaf family of Carrington, N.D., would just as soon not be interviewed about their new dairy. It’s the first large-scale, “greenfield” dairy to be built in the state in more than a decade.

Van Bedaf L.L.P. is a partnership between Dutch-born Corné Van Bedaf and his wife, Conny. The couple moved to Alberta in 2001 and then to Carrington, N.D., in August 2008. They started milking cows in March 2009 and are in the process of ramping up production.

Cordial by nature but media-shy by instinct, the Van Bedafs repeatedly have told Agweek no, saying they’d just like to be left alone to do their dairying. After all, they emphasize they haven’t proven anything yet.

No story here, they say.

But on Oct. 24, the Carrington and Foster County economic development leaders convinced them to do a ribbon cutting and open house. The locally promoted event drew than 400 friends and neighbors, judging by the plastic boot liners and the ice cream sandwich count. Most think the Van Bedaf dairy is significant news for the U.S. Highway 281 Livestock Corridor and for the state.

DAIRYING GENETICS

The Van Bedafs are multigenerational dairy pros.

Both grew up in Rijsbergen, Netherlands, a town of about 5,000 people in the southern part that country, near the Belgian border. Each was the eldest of two siblings in families that had been doing dairy for generations.

“I lived on the southern part of the town and my husband lived on the north,” Conny says. “His family milked black-and-white cows; my family milked red-and-white.”

After high school, Corné went right directly into his family’s dairy business.

Conny, who also had a passion for dairying, surmised that her younger brother would be the one to take over the farm.

“I thought I wasn’t going to be a dairy farmer, but I wanted to stay close to the business,” she says. “I got a bachelor’s degree in food technology.”

Corné and Conny dated and started laying plans.

She graduated in July 1989, and they were married in August. They bought their own place in October, and Corné became the manager of the home farm as his father backed away.

“So I got to be a dairy farmer,” Conny says with a broad smile.

On the wall in the new dairy office is a nostalgic photograph of the bridal couple in their wedding attire, flanked by a pasture and their cows.

“I think they were curious about what kind of clothes we were wearing,” Conny recalls of the day.

The Van Bedafs worked the dairy farm for 11 years in the Netherlands.

They lived on the home place, where a neat, brick barn included a home in the front and a tie stall barn in the back. In the old days, pigs were on side of the barn.

The Van Bedafs built a separate freestall barn, of the kind that was being added there in the 1970s.

“We had 60 cows — 52 milking at any given time,” she says.

About that time, three children were born — sons Piet in 1991 and Dries in 1993 and daughter Maartje in 1995.

The Van Bedafs seemingly were living a dream.

Conny counts among the high points the development of a series of cows they named “Conny,” today enshrined in a series of photographs on their office wall.

“Suddenly, a great cow turns up out of your calves; that makes everything worthwhile,” Conny says.

Economics made their dream go darker.

The Van Bedafs saw that they’d need cows if they were both to work on the farm.

“We were both dedicated to dairy farming,” she says. “We wanted a farm where we could all stay home — my husband and me. It was we loved to do, and the Netherlands was getting too small to see that happen.”

The couple started touring the dairy industry in the United States and Canada.

“We thought everything was too big in the states. We decided to go to Canada.”

NORTH AMERICA'S LURE

First, the Van Bedafs first looked at opportunities in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, and then in several Canadian provinces. They chose Calmar, Alberta, promoted to be in the heart of Alberta’s agriculture and oil field industries.

“We had some second cousins up there,” Conny says. “Alberta is beautiful. It’s a healthy economy in Alberta — a good province to be in.”

So they sold the cows in the Netherlands and were able to buy a herd in Canada. Her brother moved to the same place the same year.

Calmar is about 25 miles southwest of the city of Edmonton. There were five commercial-sized dairies within 10 miles.

They had a herd of about 100 milking cows. They would have liked to go bigger, but eventually couldn’t afford it. The price of Alberta’s quota system started to catch up with what they’d seen in the Netherlands.

The Canadian quota system is “way too complicated,” Conny says. “You have to produce a certain amount of pounds a year. You can’t go higher; you can’t go lower or you lose it. We thought it was way too much money if you wanted to expand — too much capital and you were investing in air.”

The cost of buying the quota for one additional cow was about $30,000, she says.

“If you want to milk 20 more cows, that’s $600,000 of quota. You can’t touch it. And if the government decides a year afterward that it’s going to get rid of the quota, then it’s worth nothing. We decided this was a heckuva risk.”

Soon, they turned to the United States — and this time, the Dakotas.

NORTH DAKOTA: SPACE AND 'PACE'

The Van Bedafs had become aware of some Dutch dairies in the I-29 corridor dairy expansion area in east-central South Dakota. One of the recent immigrants had come from their hometown in the Netherlands.

Driving from Alberta to Volga, S.D., they’d pass through North Dakota — Minot, Carrington, Jamestown — and asked questions along the way.

“We contacted the North Dakota Dairy Coalition,” Conny says. “What interested us was the space. We were from the Netherlands and knew what it was like to be too close. I’m not saying South Dakota was overcrowded, here we found an adequate amount of connected land to go with a dairy.”

Turns out Carrington was looking for them, too.

Tom Erdmann, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, says the group had started an agriculture committee in 2004 to ’05 to encourage livestock development, to go with the region’s abundant feed supply.

Carrington’s group met with others on Highway 281 Livestock Development Corridor.

In 2006, Carrington, Ellendale and Jamestown chambers — working together as a Highway 281 Livestock Development Corridor — received a $7,590 grant from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Committee. The group started a Web site and increased cooperation with the North Dakota Dairy Coalition, led by Gary Hoffman.

In 2007, Hoffman brought out three dairy owners and one looking for a heifer feedlot.

The Van Bedafs were the only ones to return to the area and look at specific sites.

On Jan. 22, 2008, the Van Bedafs made up their minds — Carrington.

The first potential site was northwest of Carrington, but that was five miles from three-phase power, so they looked elsewhere. Erdmann says they looked at five potential sites, but the one they chose had a willing seller. It also had access to both Stutsman and Ramsey rural water systems and was a mile and a half from a paved highway — critical because the milk must be shipped daily.

With a few high-profile exceptions, the Van Bedafs say they and their dairy have been largely welcomed by the community at large. Laurie Dietz, executive director of the chamber, attending the open house, calls the new dairy a “great asset” to the community and says it is the kind of business the community needs to attract.

“Great people,” Dietz says.

For his part, Erdmann says that while he’s learned that “not everybody” shares the vision of increased livestock and dairy in the region. But most do, he says, and they’ve shown their support.

“When grain prices are low, people want to go looking for livestock to add value,” Erdmann says. “When grain prices are high, people forget.”

GRADUAL GROWTH

For her part, Conny looks ahead, and not back.

She downplays the idea that the Carrington barn is either new or unique, in size or design. She says their technology is very similar to their earlier dairies in the Netherlands and Canada, only a size larger.

The barn is sized for 1,000 head of cows, she says.

So far, they’re at 750 head, but they’re getting close to the 800 to 850 that will be milked. Another 150 to 200 would be the dry cows.

Their Netherlands milking parlor was a “double-6,” meaning 12 cows could be milked at one time. The Canadian parlor was a double-8, expandable to a double-12. The Carrington parlor is a double-16 and expandable to a double-24, or 48 cows per milking group.

The Van Bedafs use sand bedding, which is comfortable for the cows. They run the dirty sand through a separator to remove manure. The sand is recycled and the manure goes into a two-phase lagoon.

Manure solids stay in the first cell. They’re later pumped out as fertilizer for the adjoining land. The Van Bedafs have purchased seven quarters of land around the dairy, which are either custom-farmed or cash-rented by nearby farmers.

The dairy manure is applied to that land, through a so-called “umbilical” system, which takes it up to three miles from storage site, through a flexible hose. The field applicator is tractor-towed, and the manure is knifed in to keep the smell can be held to a minimum.

Conny says the manure fertilizer provides fertility for the crops which would other wise have provided through synthetic fertilizer. Meanwhile, liquids run into the second cell. The liquids are pumped back to wash the sand.

Conny says Corné didn’t want to be in a position of simply owning the cows and buying silage and corn from other people.

“We believe you should have a certain base where you can provide cows with your own feed,” she says.

CHALLENGES MET

Construction was a challenge, especially in the hard winter of 2008 to ’09, and they’re looking forward to a better winter this year.

The building went up with only a month’s delay.

“It was a hassle every time, moving the snow,” Conny says. “It was cold, but people are tough here. They just kept on working.”

The Van Bedafs brought 200 replacement heifers from Alberta. A producer in Edgeley, N.D., housed and milked the cows until their barn was ready in March 2009.

By the time they were ready to milk in March 2009, they had another 80 cows that had calved.

The Van Bedafs count themselves as fortunate in their market timing, despite recent concerns about milk prices.

They managed to avoid the highest corn prices in 2008.

“By the time we started, grain had come down quite a bit,” Conny says. “Not that we made a lot of money over the summer months, but we didn’t lose as much as everybody has been talking about right now.”

Milk prices are heading in the right direction, she says.

The Van Bedafs are primarily financed through the Minot, N.D.-based Farm Credit Services of North Dakota. Erdmann is manager of the Carrington branch.

FCS of ND has an agreement with the Bank of North Dakota, which has an interest buy-down with the Biofuels PACE, or Agricultural Partnership in Assisting Community Expansion, participation.

The state bank’s Biofuels PACE program requires the recipient use byproducts from North Dakota’s biofuels industry. The Van Bedafs are using canola meal from the ADM plant in Velva, N.D., and dried distiller’s grains from Underwood, N.D. They also buy wheat middlings and ground pasta from Dakota Growers Pasta Co. in Carrington, N.D., and beet pulp from the American Crystal Sugar Co. plant in Hillsboro, N.D.

They keep piles of these components in a commodity building and mix it in consultation with a nutritionist, who makes a visit every two weeks.

THREE-A-DAY MILKING

The Van Bedafs are in the final stretch to full production. On Nov. 2, they planned to move from milking twice a day to three times a day.

“That way the parlor will be efficient, 24 hours a day,” Conny says.

The herd at its current size produces about 6,500 gallons, or 55,000 pounds, of milk a day. The Van Bedafs so far have two 7,200-gallon tanks. The second tank is a kind of insurance policy in case there are snow days.

Cows are sheltered year-round and are in a freestall barn, allowing cow to walk around and eat at the center aisle.

The barn is provided with a veterinary office and a surgery room — so far unused — where cows can be taken if necessary.

“We did that because of the climate,” Conny says. “When it gets really cold out here, you can do a surgery in a heated area instead of in the cold.”

Newborn heifer and bull calves are all treated the same.

When they are about 7 days old, they go to a heifer farm near Harvey, N.D., where an experienced dairyman feeds on a custom basis. At 6 months, they’re taken to Missouri River Feeders of Mandan, N.D., owned by the Price family. At 1 year old, they’re taken to Carrington, where they’re acclimated for six weeks before calving.

Conny says there are quite a few specialists like this in North Dakota, some of whom get their calves from as far away as Wisconsin.

“This seems to be a good climate to raise calves,” she says.

Conny says they are in Carrington to stay.

“You do it for the kids,” Conny says. “It’s the same in every family. My husband and I both wanted to be dairy farmers, and if our kids have our genes, they’ll want to be dairy farmers, too.”

Sons, Piet, 18, and Dies, 16, both have indicated they’re looking toward careers in dairy. Maartje, who is 14, so far hasn’t indicated a career direction.

Conny says says “nobody pushed” them to move to Carrington, so they don’t complain about any cultural differences. And they have no regrets.

“We don’t speak a lot of Dutch anymore,” Conny says. “When you’re with a lot of Dutch people, you tend to hang out with those same people, and you keep on speaking Dutch. We think you move to a country, you should adjust to the language and habits.”

They came to the United States for the free market and hope it’ll stay that way.

“I think we still believe in that,” she says. “We have to let the market do its thing, and it’ll all be fine. You don’t look at it in the short-term. You have to look at it in the long term.”

The Van Bedafs are optimistic that prices for milk will rebound. They’ve been paying attention to the national debate over protecting the dairy industry. Conny says she isn’t sure what the answer is, especially given the vastly different size of dairies in the East vs. the West Coast areas.

She’s clear about one thing.

“They should never make a transferable quota,” she says. “It’ll kill the dairy sector. Stable milk prices might sound right, but you give it all away with a quota payment, and there is no room for expanding.”

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