Up from the ashes
Editor's note Agweek last week began a two-part series about dairy businesses associated with Rick Millner, a Roseau, Minn., native and North Dakota State University graduate who has became a large and controversial player in the region's dairy b...
Agweek last week began a two-part series about dairy businesses associated with Rick Millner, a Roseau, Minn., native and North Dakota State University graduate who has became a large and controversial player in the region's dairy businesses, managing a collection of entities from Prairie Ridge Management in Veblen, S.D.
In the first part, Agweek told about Millner's early personal and career history and how the charismatic Millner in 2000 was chosen to manage Multi-Community Cooperative Dairy, a 1,600-cow operation. The then-new cooperative investors included farmers in the prairie pothole area who simply had wanted better markets for their feed products.
Millner grew MCC into a collection of entities with some $150 million in assets and thousands of milking cows in several locations, all under his management. The management entity eventually became Prairie Ridge Management. He eventually gained some ownership, as well as ownership in businesses that would be linked with MCC as vendors.
Under Millner's direction, MCC Dairy grew and developed links with dairies in Cottonwood, Hoffman and Thief River Falls in Minnesota.
It wasn't long before some investors in the organizations were not happy with the fast-expanding enterprises and felt they had insufficient information about it. At MCC Dairy, the board eventually changed its leadership as some members questioned the movement of animals and finances among them. After the governance changed, Millner helped finance a new dairy, Veblen East, with large Korean investments. MCC changed to Veblen West.
Most of the dairies managed by Millner and his Prairie Ridge Management had occasional environmental infractions, but the most notable was at Excel Dairy in Thief River Falls. In 2008, market conditions with high feed cost and volatile milk prices, as well as the struggles with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, started the company in a whirlwind that ended with several of the entities seeking bankruptcy protection.
This week, we talk to the site manager for a new "calving facility" being started in Ramona, S.D., which -- ironically -- is eight miles from Madison, S.D., the home of Cory Heidelberger, who has been one of Millner's most consistent and outspoken critics. We also offer a sidebar about the success of Cliff Viessman Inc., a substantial dairy and liquid food products trucking company based in Gary, S.D. Wayne Viesssman, the company's chief executive officer, and several of his family members -- individually, not as the company -- have been investors in the Millner-managed dairy production enterprises, including the new one in Ramona, initially housing 500 to 700 animals and performing calving duties for dairies in Hoffman and in Milnor, N.D. Millner hints that that the vision for that site has "not been fully developed," but that the Prairie Ridge Management Co. may be "on its way to winding down."
RAMONA, S.D. -- Raziel Vazquez has been getting a lot done at Lake County Dairy L.L.C., just southeast of the town of Ramona and about eight miles north of Madison, S.D.
Vazquez is the site manager for the facility. Partners include Wayne Viessman and Mike Wyum, two of the principal investor/board members for the old Veblen dairies managed by Prairie Ridge Management.
"I know there is more" partners, Vazquez says of the ownership. "That's the only two that I know."
Wyum refers questions about the place to Rick Millner.
A new start
Vazquez has been working for the Veblen dairies for more than five years, working here with work visas. He had been here on annually renewed visas but recently was renewed for three years, good through 2014. According to his Facebook page, the affable veterinarian who studied at the Auton Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, a Mexican public university, is from Cerritos, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. His wife, Maria, also is a veterinarian who sometimes works at the new dairy.
There are 10 people working here, Vazquez says. They include seven holders of advanced degrees -- four veterinarians from Mexico, two agronomic engineers from Argentina and one from Mexico.
The new partners bought the dairy in February and started moving in in March 2010.
"It was sitting empty since October 2010 -- seven, eight months," Vazquez says. There were some older buildings that didn't work in the Lake County Dairy scheme of things. They used a freestall barn, cross-ventilated barn and the parlor.
One barn has been changed to sand bedding. They built a sand lane and poured concrete from the barns to the gravel road. They also poured a concrete feed pad, ready to go for silage. The dairy came with a half-section of land, or 320 acres, which is enough for 500 head.
The Ramona farm was set up for 700 head, but since some of the barns have been removed, it can only hold about 550 head for the moment, Vazquez says.
At the moment, it's only being used for calving for two other dairies managed by Prairie Ridge Management. Those are Five Star Dairy in Milnor, N.D., and New Horizon Dairy in Hoffman, Minn. Calving for those formerly had been at Veblen East, which went into bankruptcy and was sold to Riverview Dairy of Morris, Minn. Vazquez had been in charge of "transition barns" at Veblen East. In fact, the entire staff had been from the old Veblen East.
Since the bankruptcies and the change in ownership of dairies near
Veblen, however, Five Star and New Horizon had been doing their own calving, which cuts into the space that can be used for lactating cows producing milk.
"Before, they were milking 1,300 at New Horizon, but they had to cut production by 300 head milking to keep dry cows on the facility," Vazquez says.
There already is talk of expansion, Vazquez says. The logical level would be about 1,300 milking, he says.
"We'd still be doing the calving, so we'd probably house about 1,500 head," he says.
Is this a long way to transport cows for calving?
"Ideally, you'd have it closer, but it still works," Vazquez says. "This is the only one available at the time."
Neighbors contacted by Agweek say little about the new dairy, wanting to stay open-minded and positive about a new neighbor.