Marshall Dairy boosts Veblen area economy

Shannon Marvel

VEBLEN, S.D. — A group of friendly Jersey cows lines up onto a milking parlor where their udders will be checked and then disinfected before a milking unit is placed on each teat.

The cows slowly go around in a circle before their milking time is over and they return to their indoor barn with fresh bedding and feed. There, they typically socialize with one another, moving around freely in the huge indoor area.

Kelly Brandlee, a spokeswoman for Marshall Dairy, operated by Riverview LLP, said that the cows usually incite a lot of giggles and interest from young students during tours.

An employee of Marshall Dairy in Veblen attaches the pump to the udders of cows as they move on the rotary milking parlor at the Marshall West Dairy. Farm Forum photo by John Davis

“The cows are not out in the snow or heat — they’re still happy because they don’t have to deal with all those elements. And our people are happy, too, because they don’t have to work in the snow, rain and ice,” she said.

“I’ll bring a group of kids in here, we’ll just be walking along, and the cows will follow them. They just think that’s the greatest thing in the world,” Brandlee said.

“They lay down anytime they want, they spend a lot of time socializing. One of the things I love about Jerseys is their tongues. They’ll lick everything. It’s just kind of in their nature,” Brandlee said, noting how each cow has a tag, which holds its entire life history. “We have a scanner that we scan their ear, and all their information shows up on the computer. We keep track of when it was born and everything in between.”

Marshall Dairy in Veblen uses double parallel parlors, as well as a 50 cow carousel at two different locations on the east and west sides of town.

“We have herd health guys that go around and check the health of the cows. They’ll check to see who is in heat and who needs to be bred. There’s a lot of different jobs and a lot of people floating around,” Brandlee explained, noting that the dairy employees a staff of 140.

Kelly Brandlee, of Marshall Dairy in Veblen, talks about the cows used at the facility during a tour. Farm Forum photo by John Davis

“We utilize a TN visa. With that visa you have to have a five-year degree within your specialty. So several of my coworkers are actually veterinarians in Mexico,” she said.

The TN visa allows citizens of Canada and Mexico to work in the United States in prearranged business activities for U.S. or foreign employers, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Brandlee explained the milking process, which begins with one of the dairy’s workers checking each of the cow’s udders before they are sanitized.

“Then they’ll get the milking units on them, and they’ll be milked for the next seven and a half minutes. Then they’ll come off and they’ll get a post-dip, which basically just cleans it off,” she said.

The dairy has about 19,000 head, mostly Jersey cows and some Holstein cows. While the milk cows are housed in a huge area that has a constant 5 mph breeze, a room kept at 80 degrees is for the newborn calves. After a day, the calves are transported to Moore Calves calf ranch near Hancock, Minn. After a few more days, the calves then travel to New Mexico and Arizona, where they receive specialized care until they have their first calf — and return to the dairy as milk cows.

“Everything is artificial insemination. We use beef semen from Limousine cattle, along with dairy bull semen, we also utilize beef semen from Limousine cattle,” Brandlee explained. “Those calves then go to the feedlot where they are finished for beef. The traditional way of breeding is you’d get a 50-50 chance of getting a female calf. The dairy uses sexed-semen, which gives you a 90 percent chance of getting a female calf, so that’s what we use for our replacements.”

A system treats and recycles the water used to clean out manure and wash off the cow teats.

“All that water is recycled. So we run it through our system, clean it and reuse it,” Brandlee said.

The manure is sucked up while the cows are being milked, then taken to the dairy’s manure building where it is separated between dry and liquid.

“Sometimes we have cows that are milked two times a day, sometimes three times a day. It just depends where they’re at in their production cycle,” Brandlee said.

About 101,000 gallons of milk is sent off to Valley Queen Cheese, a cheese processing facility in Milbank, where it’s then processed into an assortment of cheeses.

The manure is sold to local farmers, who then turn around and sell their feed to the dairy. But the economic impact the dairy has on the area is much greater.

Nearly a quarter of Veblen’s population of 525 people work at the dairy farm.

“When you’re talking about 140 people, that’s a lot of people that work here in a little town like this,” Brandlee said.

“The trickle down effect, we bring in hay choppers and silage choppers, so they also stop at the grocery store,” she added.

About 10 miles east of Veblen, Denver Nickeson takes a break from chopping hay to speak about how the dairy has benefited his family’s chopping business.

The Nickeson’s chop corn, hay and silage so it can be consumed as feed for the dairy cows.

“We started in 2012. We were approached about it, and we just had a smaller cattle and farming operation, and it just made us able to expand our operation. With the markets the way they are and the economy the way it is, we were able to enhance off of that,” Nickeson said.

“We have a pretty large crew, and I feel like the biggest thing they impacted is there are a lot of young guys on our crew. I’d say the average age is probably in the mid-30s, and it’s provided the same amount of opportunity for our whole group. There are a lot of local farmers that help us,” he added.

Nickeson said his family’s business relationship with Riverview Dairy has helped his chopping business to gradually grow.

“We started with one chopper, and now we’ve got three choppers, a mower, multiple trucks, a couple dozers. We started really small not knowing what was going to happen, and they’ve always been kind to us and have been excellent to work with, so it makes it a lot easier. It’s been an awesome opportunity to be able to work with Riverview,” Nickeson said.

Thanks to the dairy’s business there are also more opportunities for the younger generation to continue working within the agriculture industry.

“A lot of the local farms that have kids that want to stay in the farming operation, basically it gives their kids a chance to branch off and do something else with a custom truck or a custom tractor. And it helps farmers being able to expand with the kids and the parents. It keeps a lot of the younger generation within the community,” Nickeson said.

Sonny Nickeson, of Marshall Dairy in Veblen, left talks about the economic impact the dairy has on the area. Sonny's brother Denver Nickeson, right, and other family members grow and cut alfalfa and silage corn on their farm for feed for the dairy. American News photo by John Davis taken 8/22/2019

“Having the younger atmosphere, it’s helping a lot. We have guys that come in within a 30-to-40-mile radius. Either they own a truck or have a friend’s or family’s truck. If it wasn’t for the dairy, nobody really knows where we’d be sitting at with the markets the way they are.”

The dairy’s staff has also boosted Veblen’s local grocery store, Grobes Grocery. Without the store, owner Mike Grobe said Veblen wouldn’t have a grocery store in town.

“The dairy really helped us out. That’s most of our customers,” Grobe said.

Near the store’s front counter are three framed pictures with currency from Mexico and countries from South America.

“They bring us money as gifts to show off. One guy wanted to come in a purchase it, and I told him those are gifts, they don’t mean anything to you, to us they mean something,” Grobe said.

He also puts in the effort to make sure certain Hispanic foods are in stock for his customers.

“People come from Fargo (N.D.) to come get it. We’re the only ones that carry it. The people that come here, they ask for it and we try to get,” Grobe said.

He and his family even had a stint where they would drive 150 miles to Wilmar, Minn., and back for a certain brand of tortillas.

“We’d go to La Fiesta in Wilmar, owned by a nice young couple from Mexico, and they told us what to buy, what not to buy,” he said.

“Nobody carried it. Now we get it delivered on our grocery truck,” Grobe said.

Mike Grobe, of Grobe’s Grocery and Hardware in Veblen, S.D., talks about the variety of products the store carries for the immigrant employees that work at the Marshall Dairy. Farm Forum photo by John Davis taken 8/22/2019