Groundbreaking ceremony held for nation's largest research dairy, located in Idaho

Idaho Press
Idaho Press

RUPERT – University of Idaho and its partners broke ground Thursday on what will be the nation’s largest and most advanced research dairy, providing answers to help dairy producers and crop farmers operate sustainably for decades to come.

The $22.5 million research dairy will be part of the broader $45 million Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE), which will also include an outreach and education center in Jerome County and a food processing research facility on the College of Southern Idaho (CSI) campus in Twin Falls.

The commercial-scale dairy, which will have the capacity to milk up to 2,000 cows, will be built on 640 acres in rural Rupert, adjacent to the future 1,200-acre Water and Soil Health Demonstration Farm. Studies at the dairy and farm will delve into connections between crop and animal agriculture.

The lead contractors are McAlvain Construction of Boise and Keller Associates, which has offices in several Idaho cities. The dairy should be finished by 2023 and milking cows by 2024.

“It’s exciting for me, and I think most other dairymen, to know that we’re going to have science and we’re going to have research and we can have answers,” Pete Wiersma, president of Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA), said during a groundbreaking ceremony hosted at the future dairy site. “They may not always be positive for our industry but that is OK because at least we know and we can adjust.”

IDA has been instrumental in providing financial support and advocacy on behalf of the project and will help guide research topics. IDA CEO Rick Naerebout said participating in Idaho CAFE has been the “largest engagement in the history of the association.”

“As a U.S. dairy industry we set a goal of being net zero by 2050. It’s no secret we don’t have a clue how to get there,” Naerebout said. “This site is going to be instrumental in helping us figure out how we help our dairymen achieve that net zero goal to be carbon free in that timeline.”

The groundbreaking represents the culmination of planning efforts that started in 1995, when the IDA approached the university with the concept. U of I currently relies on a 100-cow dairy at its Moscow campus for dairy research.

“Early on in 1995 there were dairy producers who said, ‘We really need you to have a dairy in southern Idaho so you reflect the industry and you can do research and answer questions that really address the issues we face, and you can’t do that in Moscow,” said Mark McGuire, associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and director of the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station.

Though the first cow has yet to arrive at the dairy, it’s already attracting significant research dollars. In 2020, a team of faculty led by McGuire secured a $10 million USDA grant to enhance sustainability and develop economic opportunities for the dairy industry. That grant is now funding work by 20 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Furthermore, research is underway at the site by U of I faculty from the Department of Plant Sciences and the Department of Soil and Water Systems to establish baseline information on the demonstration farm, including soil analysis.

“The beauty of Idaho CAFE is the linkage between the research dairy and agricultural production – plant production,” said CALS Dean Michael Parrella. “I think that actually makes us a unique facility in the U.S.”

Idaho CAFE research projects will delve into a broad array of topics such as agricultural economics, sustainability, labor management, commodity risk management, animal health and productivity, genetic improvement of animals, food safety, food science and manufacturing, forage cropping and agronomy, green energy production, energy conservation, nutrient and wastewater management, odor and emissions control, precision agriculture and technology, production management, soil health, value-added products and water use.

Parrella anticipates Idaho CAFE will draw researchers from throughout the world who will capitalize on the facility’s unique attributes as they pursue solutions to the greatest challenges facing the industry.

“Clearly the work here will be impactful not only for Idaho, but also at the national and international level,” Parrella said. “We expect this facility to be a Mecca. We expect faculty from other universities to come and do work. Why? Because this facility is going to provide them the opportunity to do work they can do nowhere else.”

A major breakthrough for Idaho CAFE came in 2017, when the state Legislature allocated $10 million toward the project in its permanent building fund. Former Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, was instrumental in securing that funding and has remained a staunch advocate for the project. Bell recalled driving throughout Magic Valley with Parrella several years ago in search of a suitable site for the dairy.

“I thought this day would never come,” Bell said. “We have so many needs for it.”

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service will also work closely with the university and its partners at Idaho CAFE. Along with the IDA, other financial supporters to date include J.R. Simplot Company Foundation, Elanco, Chobani, the Whitesides family, DeLaval, Total Dairy Solutions, Northwest Farm Credit Services, Redox, Scoular, Anheuser-Busch Foundation, Arlen Crouch, Glanbia Nutritionals, Idaho Power, Idaho Milk Products, Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, Idaho Barley Commission, Commercial Creamery, Donald and Mary Johnson and the state of Idaho.

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