By Marlena Martz: CNJ Correspondent
Dairy farmers in eastern New Mexico and West Texas currently rely on small calving operations, partnerships and personal efforts to keep their herds stocked.
But that may soon change.
Fullmer Cattle Co. of California plans to build a 75,000-head calving operation in Muleshoe that would have the company raising dairy calves by the end of the year if all goes as planned.
The privately funded, $12-million venture will span more than 1,258 acres at a site 3 miles west of Muleshoe off state Highway 1760.
Dan Briggs, general manager of the new operation, said Muleshoe is the perfect fit for Fullmer, a business with branches in New Mexico, Idaho, Arizona and California.
The company plans to employ anywhere from 100 to 150.
“We like a little breathing room,” Briggs said. “In California, housing developments have sprung up next to our calves’ grazing area. We’re using this internal shift (towards the Panhandle) to get to the center of the industry.”
It isn’t only wide open spaces that attracted the company to the Texas Panhandle.
“We see a trend, with high regulations in California, dairies are moving east. And Muleshoe is the geographical center between the dairy industry’s heifers and existing feed lots for bulls,” Briggs said.
There are more 70 dairy farms in the Clovis-Portales area, with average herd sizes varying from 1,800 to 2,000. Gone are the days of intimate, family farming. Today, most dairy operations employ 18 to 25 people and are marked by the hum of high-tech, automated machinery.
Dairies typically replace about 30 percent of their herd each year, Briggs said.
Larry Hancock, who owns a neighboring dairy in Muleshoe, is excited about what the business will mean for the local economy. Hancock sees dollar signs, rather than competition woes.
“I raise my own calves and I’m not planning on changing that. My hope is that he wants lots of calves; maybe the price of our calves will go up,” Hancock said.
Walter Bradley, a native of Clovis and the grandson of a farmer, is paid to understand agriculture. When he accepted a position as director of government and industry relations for the Southwest Area of Dairy Farmers of America in August 2004, he committed himself to helping local dairy farmers expand their markets.
The new calving operation, he said, is a spin-off of local economic growth.
“One thing I know for sure,” Bradley said, “is there will never be a lack of people drinking milk.”
He said supporting the dairy industry was an essential element in economic growth in Clovis and surrounding areas.
“Clovis is at the center of a 50-mile radius of growth,” said Bradley, citing area additions such as Lowe’s Home Improvement Center as an example. “New businesses and new stores are moving into the area. The rewards are great. It means jobs for our children. It means we have created an environment where our children do not have to relocate. We now have cheese plants with open management positions; we need sales people, we need interns for veterinarians. This all has an exciting long-term impact for the area.”
Muleshoe, he said, is only the most recent beneficiary of a nearly quarter century long boom in the dairy industry.