Meet Your Neighbor David Lewis at the Stevensville Creamery Picnic

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Montana is cattle country, a place linked in the American consciousness to images of leather-clad cowboys on horseback breathing dust kicked up by horned herds. David Lewis knows those romantic images are just that.

Every morning, whether in the long days of summer or in the deep of winter, Lewis rises before the sun and gets busy tending his herd of 600 Holstein cattle. But instead of riding across sagebrush hills shooting predators from the hip and saving hapless calves from raging rivers, Lewis is more likely sitting behind a computer or fine-tuning his state-of-the-art milkingmachinery.

“When we’re milking, I’m checking over every cow as it goes through — and I can’t even see them,” Lewis said as he sits at the computerized monitoring station in the milking barn at his 85-acre dairy farm just west of Victor, in the Bitterroot Valley.

Lewis is one among a fading breed of Montana dairymen. Like many of those who remain, it is a business in his blood: When he was just 14 his father started the dairy operation, which David took over when he was 28 years old. He is now 51.

According to data from the Montana Department of Livestock, Montana was home to 10,400 dairy farmers in 1965. By 2007, only 390 dairy farmers remained in the state. While the beef cattle industry remains robust, the number of dairy cows has dwindled from a high of 196,000 in 1933, to just 14,000 today (by comparison, there are 2.5 million beef cattle in the state).

Contrary to other regions, the dairy industry in the Bitterroot Valley continues to be strong, Lewis noted, although it has changed dramatically.

“In 1988, when I bought the dairy from my dad, there were 32 dairies in the valley,” he said. “Now there are seven. But we have the same overall number of cows. It’s about economies of scale basically: Get bigger or get out.”

Spend a day with David and it becomes evident why today’s young workers aren’t clamoring to get into the dairy business. Working alongside four full-time employees and a couple of part-timers, Lewis must keep the operation running almost around the clock, milking each of the farm’s 256 producing animals three times, feeding the entire herd and shipping 23,000 pounds of milk — each and every day of the year.

“The ranchers, they calve once a year,” Lewis noted. “We never quit. I have one person on staff whose full-time job is just raising calves.”

At least Lewis doesn’t have to worry about where he will sell his milk. In 2010, Lewis became one of more than 550 farmer-owners of Darigold, Inc., the marketing and processing subsidiary of the Northwest Dairy Association and the nation’s fourth-largest dairy cooperative. The move brought market security and an affiliation with the most respected brand of dairy products in America.

“This farm was 12 miles from the processing plant when Dad bought it,” Lewis said. “Now the closest plant is in Bozeman. When freight is such a big issue, it’s really important to have the sense of security that comes with being a part of Darigold.”

Ultimately, Lewis wouldn’t trade his life on the dairy farm for anything.

“I love my cows, love being a farmer,” he said. “I have friends who do other things, they’re gone from home every other week. I got to watch every one of my kids get on and off the bus on their first day of school. We may have to milk on Christmas day, but then we open presents just like everyone else. I just really, really love this lifestyle.”

Darigold Montana at the Stevensville Creamery Picnic: August 3-5, 2012:  Montanans can learn more about the state’s dairy industry and meet local dairy farmers, like David Lewis and his family, at the upcoming Stevensville Creamery Picnic and Milk Run. Darigold is a proud sponsor of this year’s picnic and Dave will be driving a vintage 1928 Darigold truck in the Creamery Parade. Darigold will also be hosting a sampling booth at Veteran’s Park for this year’s Milk Run. Participants are encouraged to stop by to try Darigold’s Refuel Chocolate milk – a lactose-free, real dairy, 3-to-1 carb-to-protein ratio recovery drink.

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About Darigold Montana and Darigold, Inc.:

Darigold Montana’s plant in Bozeman, Mont., has been in operation since 1956. The plant distributes milk throughout Montana, and all milk processed at the plant comes from Darigold cooperative farmers within the state. Darigold, Inc. is headquartered in Seattle, Wash., and is the marketing and processing subsidiary of the Northwest Dairy Association, which is owned by more than 550 dairy producers throughout the Northwest. Darigold, Inc. produces a full line of dairy-based products for retail, foodservice, commodity and specialty markets and is one of the largest U.S. dairy processors. Darigold, Inc. operates 13 processing plants throughout the Northwest to serve its dairy farm families. http://consumer.darigold.com