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Desert Dairy

Meet Arizona’s dairy farmers and discover how milk gets from the farm to the table.

Believe it or not, dairy is Arizona’s highest grossing agricultural sector. Current revenue from the state's dairy industry totals about $871 million annually. Approximately 177,000 milk cows work in about 180 dairies across the state. Like farms and cattle ranches, many of these are family owned.

Arizona is ranked number twelve in the nation for milk production. In 2012, Arizona cows produced almost 400 million pounds of milk for cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy favorites. Some of these products travel around the world to Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Most dairies in Arizona are fairly large, keeping between 1,500 to 2,000 cows. Many remain family owned. Like any business dependent on animals or the weather, dairy farming has many risks. In 2009, rising feed costs mixed with a drop in demand overseas and soured the economic outlook for many small dairy farmers. Several dairies that had existed for generations were forced to close their doors. The past few years have seen the industry stabilize somewhat.

Happy Cows

Wes Kerr of the family-owned Bill Kerr Dairy reveals how happy cows mean happy farmers.Arizona’s climate provides both challenges and benefits to dairy cows. Temperatures are ideal for eight months out of the year. But our extreme heat means cows need special care during the summertime. Mercury in the 90s leads to decreased milk production and potential danger to a cow’s health.

Arizona dairy farmers seem to agree on one point: happy cows give better milk. Therefore, no effort is spared to keep the ladies cool and comfortable. Cows rest in the shade and receive cooling showers twice a day. Misters and state of the art ventilation systems keep air temperatures stable. For nearly two decades, these standard practices have helped dairy farmers—many located in central Arizona—to beat the worst of the summer heat.

As climate change brings higher summer temperatures to the Midwest, these measures give Arizona farmers a distinct advantage. Midwestern farms that do not have these safeguards in place are ill equipped to deal with the record hot temperatures of late, and milk production suffers in those locations.

United Dairymen of Arizona

United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA) is an agricultural milk marketing cooperative that has helped Arizona milk producers find global buyers for over fifty years. Cooperatives are essential to the dairy industry, as they help local dairies move, store, and process milk for sale. Today it is among the few remaining full service dairy co-ops in the county. UDA's membership consists of approximately 88 producers, averaging 1,200 head per dairy, representing approximately 90% of the milk in the state.

UDA's modern manufacturing facility in Tempe can process 10 million lbs. of milk per day. In addition to producing a variety of milk products and dehydrated milk, it is the largest supervised kosher milk facility in the country. (Arizona also produces kosher wheat.)

Incorporated in 1960, UDA is the product of a merger of two dairy associations. However, its roots tell the story of the dairy industry’s rise to prominence. In the 1930s, small dairy farms were an Arizona way of life. Almost 8,500 dairies dotted the landscape. Each dairy kept an average of just nine cows. Along with cattle ranching, these dairies were as important to Arizona's early growth and contributed as much to its revenue during the first decades of the 1900s as cotton farming did.

Shamrock Farms: One of the Nation’s Largest Dairies

An old Shamrock Farms dairy delivery truck.

Shamrock Farms is the largest family owned and operated dairy in the Southwest. The property in Stanfield, Arizona keeps 10,000 cows on 240 acres. All the cows at the dairy were born there. 47,000 gallons of milk are processed each day.

In addition to providing conventional dairy products, Shamrock Farms is Arizona’s first-ever USDA-certified Organic dairy option, providing farm-fresh organic milk and sour cream. The farm also features a state-of-the-art manure management system and recycling program whereby manure is used as a natural fertilizer at local farms.

Shamrock History

Norman McClelland, current CEO of Shamrock Foods, works at a young age.

With only 20 cows and a Model T Ford truck, Irish immigrant W.T. McClelland and his wife, Winifred opened Shamrock Dairy in Tucson in 1922, conducting all of the milking, bottling and delivery themselves. The small family-owned business has grown into a nationally-ranked, privately held, Forbes 500 company and one of the largest employers in the state.

Now Shamrock Dairy is Shamrock Foods Company, the parent company for both Shamrock Foods—one of the Top 10 largest foodservice distributors nationwide—and Shamrock Farms—one of the largest dairies nationwide. Each month, Shamrock Farms provides 80,000 pounds of food to St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, a local organization that caters to families in need across the state. Additionally, Shamrock Farms annually supports non-profit entities such as the Arizona Cactus-Pine Council Girl Scouts and the City of Hope.

Information from the United Dairymen of Arizona, Dairy Council of Arizona, Arizona Farm Bureau, and Where Food Comes From.

Eggs In Arizona!

Automated technology helps the Hickman Family Farm package and transport 3 million eggs per day!

Hickman’s Egg Ranch, now known as Hickman’s Family Farms, supplies Arizona-raised eggs to grocery stores across the state. The business began in Guy and Nellie Hickman’s backyard in Kansas City, Missouri in the late 1930s and moved to Glendale in 1944. When their son Bill returned from active duty in the Army, he met and married Gertrude Valenzuela. Bill’s wedding gift to Gertie was selling their ski boat and buying her 500 baby chicks! They began adding to their flock of hens while welcoming four sons and a daughter. In the late 1980s, Bill’s brother Glenn the Hickman sons began running every aspect from the chicken houses to egg delivery routes.

Today’s henhouses produce over 3,000,000 eggs every day on a large farm in Buckeye.  Feeding systems ensure optimal purification and reduction of drinking water, a water recycling program saves the farm 250,000 gallons of water per month, and new technology expedites the packaging and shipping process.

By investing in technology, continual improvements in hen care, and providing rewarding careers to enrich communities, the Hickman family and their 300 career employees are proud to be part of the 2% that feeds the 98%.