An $85-million dry-milk processing plant under construction in Fallon, NV, is about to bring major changes to alfalfa production in the northern part of that state.

Owned by Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the plant will take in 2 million pounds of milk daily. DFA, one of the country’s largest, farmer-owned dairy cooperatives, has a goal to buy all of its milk from local dairy producers. Yet current milk production in the area is estimated at just around 1 million pounds per day. That means local dairies will have to expand or new dairies will have to come on line to meet the plant’s needs.

Local alfalfa growers are enthused. “There will be twice as many mouths to feed,” says Mike Phillips, manager of Nevada Nile Ranch in nearby Churchill County. “As an alfalfa grower, any way you look at it, this is a good thing.”

Nevada Nile grows alfalfa hay on 4,000 irrigated acres. Packaged in 3 x 4 x 8’ bales, most of it is shipped to dairies in California’s Central Valley 300-400 miles away. Fallon-area dairies are only 50 miles or so from the ranch. “Having that local market will mean saving a lot on freight, and there will be more competition for hay,” says Phillips. He figures freight costs for shipping hay to California at $40-45/ton.

Increased dairy production will also give local alfalfa growers an incentive to diversify by adding corn to their rotations. Traditionally, wheat and other small grains have been the rotation mainstays. Growers have shied away from corn for a variety of reasons, including scarce water supplies for flood irrigation and a relatively short growing season.

But with an expanding dairy sector needing corn grain, silage or earlage, corn could become a more economically viable enterprise, says alfalfa grower Dan Knisley, owner of the 1,900-acre Great Basin Farm near Lovelock.

“Because we’re so close to the dairies in Fallon, we should be able to develop some good relationships with them to supply what they need,” says Knisley, who also brokers northern Nevada hay for Country Equipment Hay Division, another company he owns. “It will make more sense for them to have corn grown locally rather than paying to have it shipped in on rail from the Midwest.”

As a test to see how corn might work into his cropping program, Knisley grew it on 180 acres last year. “One of the benefits is that corn is harvested in the fall after we’re done with most of our alfalfa harvest. That makes it a pretty good fit for us as we look to diversify our work schedule a little more.”

DFA’s Fallon plant is expected to begin full operation in mid-2013.