After 23 and a half years as executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association, Dave Drennan retired from that post in May.
He worked for the National Corn Growers Association for 11 years before working with the dairy association, but he says it was an easy transition going from working for corn growers to working for dairy producers.
“During the interview process, when they got done asking their questions, they asked, ‘What makes you think you can work for dairymen after working all your life for crop growers?’” Drennan says. “I said, ‘Well, you dairy producers put your pants on one leg at a time, just like grain producers. You guys set the policy, and I’ll carry it out.’”
He quickly got used to the rhythms of dairy producers with their early morning milking routines.
“I never called a dairyman in the evening after 8 o’clock,” he says with a laugh.
There have been a lot of issues affecting the dairy industry during Drennan’s two-plus decades with the association, and many of them are ongoing, especially labor.
“That still is the No. 1 issue for dairymen is labor,” he says.
Drennan says this includes ongoing debates about border regulations and visa programs, as well as the next generation’s decision to the join dairy operations, which leads to further decisions about whether to expand or modernize facilities.
“Once the kids are gone, if they don’t come back, then that dairy is not going to last,” Drennan says.
He says the key to the visa situation is giving dairy producers some certainty.
“We’ve got to have a permanent visa program for dairy labor,” he says.
There have been changes in production since Drennan started with Missouri Dairy in December 1995. He says Missouri was 14th in dairy production in 1995 but is now 26th, owing in part to consolidation trends.
“Larger dairies in other states produce more milk,” he says.
California is now the top dairy-producing state in the country, after Wisconsin led the way for many years. Drennan says the “I-29 corridor” states of Iowa, the Dakotas and Nebraska, have been trying to boost the dairy industry in their states.
“They’ve been aggressively, aggressively recruiting dairies to relocate there, and they’ve been successful at it,” he says.
Advances in technology and transportation have made it easy to get milk from other states into Missouri quickly — in just two days from states far away.
“You can have cows milked in Texas and in two days the milk can be on the shelves here in St. Louis,” Drennan says. “Milk knows no distance. It puts pressure on our dairy folks.”
He says there have been some efforts through the years to help support dairy in the state and help producers deal with the changing industry.
Drennan says the Missouri Dairy Revitalization Act, the result of years of effort passed in 2015, provided a boost for the industry with funding for university research into the state’s dairy industry, scholarships and assistance with insurance premiums.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Gerkin Dairy Center at the State Fair, which he says was a great showcase for the industry. Drennan says it provides an educational opportunity where fairgoers can view dairy cows in a milking parlor and try dairy products.
Drennan says the Heart of America Dairy Expo and dairy profit seminars, held around the state, grew through the years, providing a chance for Missouri’s producers to interact with each other and hear from experts on a variety of topics.
Another big development was New Zealand dairy producers coming to the state, Drennan says.
“The cultural exchange of ideas began,” he says.
New Zealand producers utilized rotational grazing for their dairies. They worked with University of Missouri Extension, and in turn many Missouri producers tried it.
“Some of our producers here adopted the New Zealand technique of rotational grazing,” Drennan says.
He says this is a “low-input dairy” approach, although the grazing approach means lower milk production than feeding grain in the barn, which impacted Missouri’s overall dairy production numbers.
In return, the New Zealand producers learned how to deal with wide weather variations from the Missouri producers.
“Conversely, the New Zealanders realized how different and unpredictable our weather can be,” Drennan says. “They learned about dealing with the drought of 2012.”
After all those years working for the state’s dairy association — through bad times like that drought and good times as well — Drennan says his take-away is how great it was to work with dairy farmers.
“There’s lots of great dairy farmers out here,” he says. “They’re the salt of the earth, and they are the hardest-working farmers out there. It’s been a pleasure.”
J.P. Dunn has been chosen as the organization’s next executive director.