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Cattle kingdom: from growth to split

More cows than people in the Magic Valley/morguefile

Besides the talk about the urban growth in parts of Idaho, there ought to be another round of discussion about the fastest-growing population in the state. Not of people: Of milk cows.

And that growth is finally have an effect on the people who work with them.

Over the last 20 years, the population of milk cows in the state has increased about two and a half times, from 174,000 to 473,000. As with people, the increase in milk cows (which is to say, the number and size of dairies), as with people, has not been evenly spread. Some places, like Franklin County, that had substantial or even major dairy activity in the mid-80s have declined (in Franklin’s case, from 14,000 to 11,500 head).

The growth has been concentrated in the Magic Valley, and to a lesser degree in southwest Idaho, in a band from Owyhee, Ada, Canyon and Payette counties. (Today, Ada has 22,000 head and Canyon 30,000 head, in each case not quite double where they were 20 years – all alongside the massive new human development in those counties.)

The Magic Valley had 75,000 milk cows in 1986, well under half the state’s total. Today it has more than four and a half times as many, 341,000, well over three-fourths of the state total. And within the Magic Valley, they’re concentrated. Few are in Blaine, Camas or Minidoka counties; Gooding, Twin Falls, Jerome and Cassia, and a fair population in Lincoln, account for the largest portion.

Nor is that all. If a set of applications now on file in the eastern valley, in Cassia and Minidoka, are approved, another 100,000 dairy cows could call the area home.

Gooding County has more than 139,000 – more than twice any other county, well over a fourth of all the dairy cows in the state, and far more dairy cows (which do not account for all of the cattle by any means) in that county than there are people in any Idaho city but Boise. That’s 190 cows per square mile in Gooding County.

It is also more than in the entire state of Oregon – 121,000; the biggest dairy county there is Tillamook, with 28,600 head. Washington has 237,000 head in all; geographically large Yakima County with 70,000 head and coastal Whatcom County with 52,000 account for much of it. Neither Oregon nor Washington has a regional dairy concentration resembling the Magic Valley.

You would think this would cause some stress and conflict. You would be right.

There have been periodic civic outbursts about this; environmental concerns still threaten to become a substantial political lever in the Magic Valley. (The idea of solving problems through politics has become somewhat atrophied.) And there’s the smell; parts of the valley have become permeated by it.

Meantime, some of the dairy owners themselves are becoming concerned, as a revealing piece in the Twin Falls Times News today suggests.

The valley’s biggest dairies are destroying a traditional rural lifestyle, cutting into small-dairy business and polluting the environment, some small dairy owners say.

And now, they’re doing something about it.

Last week at a Jerome County commissioners’ meeting concerning an application for an 18,555-cow feedlot, small-dairy owner Blaine Miller asked commissioners to consider a moratorium on new dairies in the county.

In Cassia County earlier this year, a group of small-operation farmers joined forces to fight a permit application for a large dairy.

Just two examples of a crack in a traditionally cohesive industry.

Traditionally cohesive because they came from similar origins; as the story goes on to note, most of the larger industrial – we use the word not as perjorative but as an indication of the scale of the activities – dairies grew up and out from smaller dairies, and many still are family owned. (You have to wonder how long that will last.) But because they once were the same, and had similar interests, doesn’t mean they still are and do.

Southwest Idaho has a particular reason to pay attention to to the Magic Valley. Its dairy population has been growing too, not on the same scale but speedily nonetheless.

The concept of tipping points may be worth considering.

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