MAXED OUT?: Experts disagree on whether or not there’s room for more dairies in eastern New Mexico

The number of dairy cows in Curry County has doubled in the past five years, and nearly doubled in Roosevelt County, according to a National Agriculture Statistics Service survey. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

The presence of more than 120,000 dairy cows in Roosevelt and Curry counties does not go unnoticed.

The smell of cow manure, especially on warm days, wafts through the plains commonly enough to have sprouted the colloquialism, “That’s the smell of money.”

Along roads, wide and narrow, the black-and-white hides of bovines add color to the monotone panorama.

The region is home to 64 dairies, roughly one-third of all dairies in New Mexico.

The number of dairy cows in Curry has doubled in the past five years, and nearly doubled in Roosevelt, according to a National Agriculture Statistics Survey.

The boom has been traced to more than one factor: encroachment issues and stricter regulations in California, as well as the arrival of Southwest Cheese, a behemoth cheese plant — one of the largest of its kind in North America — that began operating in the area last fall.

Has the influx reached a fizzle?

Answers waver.

According to Walter Bradley, government and industry relations director for the Southwest Area of Dairy Farmers of America, there is no more room for dairies in Roosevelt and Curry.

“We’ve reached the point where there is not many properties available in Curry and Roosevelt for dairies. There is not adequate water or land,” he said.

Instead of jostling for limited property and diminishing water, dairy farmers are settling in western nooks of the Texas Panhandle, Bradley said.

Although more suppliers have crowded into a 50-mile radius of the plant, demand for milk has not slowed down, especially with the addition of Hilmar Cheese company in Dalhart, Texas, Bradley said.

Situated about 120 miles north of Clovis, the California-based company broke ground in March and will process 5 million pounds of milk per day into American-style cheeses, according to the Hilmar Web site. When added to the 7 million pounds per day that Southwest will devour, it amounts to a rich market for local dairies.

Clovis Realtor Lonnie Mitchell contends there is ample room for dairies in Roosevelt and Curry. “There is still quite a bit of interest in the area (from the dairy industry),” Mitchell said.

Though water levels in southeast Clovis are low, water levels in western and northwestern Clovis are adequate enough to support the needs of dairies, he said.

Local dairy owner Art Schaap said his herds consume about 50 gallons of water per minute, but dairies use far less water than crop growers, and much of the water they use is recycled.

Water levels are not the most pressing concern of dairy men. Land prices and state environmental policies are, he said.

“Most dairies aren’t coming to Clovis anymore,” said Schaap, a member of the New Mexico Dairy Producers who owns three dairies in New Mexico and one in Texas.

Schaap reiterated the observations of Bradley — most new dairies are settling in West Texas, he said. Land there is cheaper because it has yet to be claimed by farmers reluctant to relinquish water rights, Schaap said. Plus, dairy regulations don’t yo-yo in Texas like they do in New Mexico, he added.

“The environment department in New Mexico changes their mind about every five years. In West Texas, once you have a permit, you can keep your water system the same way. Over here, we are constantly having to prove our systems are working right,” said Schaap.

He said he wouldn’t mind the interference if it were warranted. His four farms are environmentally sound, he said.

There are no limits on the number of dairies that can operate in any given area in New Mexico, said New Mexico Environment Department Director of Communications Adam Rankin. But dairies that wish to operate in the state must prove their operation will not contaminate groundwater, he said.

New Mexico is the country’s fifth-largest milk producer, Rankin said. And his department is keeping a close eye on the industry because of its potential to pollute the state’s primary source of drinking water.

“The burden is on the dairies to demonstrate they will protect the groundwater,” he said.

As long as they do so, the New Mexico Environment Department will welcome them with open arms, he said, and avoid dictating where they can operate.

“We see dairies as an important part of the state’s economy, especially in rural New Mexico,” Rankin said.