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U of I breaks ground on $45 million CAFE project

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

RUPERT – University of Idaho officials broke ground June 30 on a $45 million project that will include the largest and most advanced research dairy in the United States.

More than 150 people showed up for a groundbreaking ceremony for the Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, which is commonly known as CAFE. Actual construction on the research dairy part of the project is expected to begin within a few weeks.

Researchers attached to the CAFE project will address some of the main challenges facing Idaho’s dairy producers and crop farmers.

CAFE has been envisioned and talked about for more than two decades and the $22.5 million dairy research part of the project is now officially underway. The dairy will be built on 640 acres of land near Rupert, adjacent to a 1,200-acre demonstration farm where U of I scientists will conduct crop research.  

The overall CAFE project will include a food processing research facility located on the College of Southern Idaho campus in Twin Falls and an outreach and education center in Jerome County that will help teach people about Idaho agriculture and where their food comes from.

The 2,000-cow research dairy will be the largest of its kind in the United States and will help Idaho’s important dairy industry solve some of its biggest challenges, including environmental ones.

“It will be the largest research dairy in the United States and clearly then the work done here will be impactful not only for Idaho but at the national and international level,” said Michael Parrella, dean of U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Idaho ranks No. 4 in the nation in total milk production and No. 3 in cheese production and dairy is the top agricultural sector in the state in terms of total farm-cash receipts.

For Idaho dairies, one of the biggest benefits of the research dairy is that it will conduct research under the same arid conditions most of the state’s dairies operate in.

Because it will have the capacity to milk 2,000 cows, it will also be much larger than other research dairies around the nation and more reflective in size of Idaho dairies.

Parrella said the dairy will be a mecca for researchers from all over the country.

“We expect faculty from other universities to come here,” he said. “Why? Because this facility is going to provide them the opportunity to do work they can do nowhere else.”

Members of Idaho’s dairy industry first approached university officials with the initial dairy research concept back in 1995.

A lot of work and partnering have occurred since then to make the project a reality, Parrella said.

“This is really a celebration (that has) been a long time coming,” he said. “Today is certainly a significant milestone for the research dairy.”

The Idaho Dairymen’s Association, which represents the state’s 400 dairies, has provided $2 million toward CAFE. That represents the largest one-time contribution IDA has ever made to any project or cause, said IDA Executive Director Rick Naerebout.

The dairymen’s association believes strongly that it needs to invest in research, he said.

“This is a huge moment for us,” he said. “We have to have the science to back up what we do as an industry.”

The research dairy is slated to be completed in 2023 and the goal is to be milking cows there in 2024.

“We’re excited to finally get to this point,” Naerebout said. “After two decades of talking about this concept, we’re actually going to execute and move dirt.”

IDA President Pete Wiersma, who has been in the dairy business in Idaho for 30 years, said the exciting part of the research dairy is that the work done there will help the industry tackle some of its biggest challenges.

“It’s an exciting day,” he said. “It’s exciting for me to know, and I think for most other dairymen as well, that we are going to have science and research and answers. It gives me a lot of encouragement as a … dairy farmer that I am not alone trying to handle this stuff.”

The research results that come out of the dairy may not always be favorable to dairy operators, Wiersma added, “but that is OK because at least we know and we can adjust. This is a great, positive thing for the Idaho dairy industry and, I believe, for the national dairy industry as well.”

CAFE scientists will conduct cutting-edge research related to the dairy industry, including dairy-related research on lagoons, nutrient management and surface and ground water contamination, and odor and emissions control.

They will also conduct a host of agronomic related research on crops at the demonstration farm, including on water use and efficiency, soil health and fertility, crop rotations, forage cropping and agronomy, animal genetic improvement, labor management and precision agriculture.

CAFE researchers will also look at things like agricultural economics, animal health and productivity, food safety, food science and manufacturing, green energy production and value-added products.

“The research dairy is the main component of CAFE but there’s going to be broad benefits that all of Idaho agriculture will be able to reap,” Parrella said.

Studies will delve into the connection between animal and crop agriculture.

“The beauty of CAFE is the linkage between the research dairy and agricultural plant production,” Parrella said. “I feel like that actually makes this a unique facility in the United States.”

The dairy has already attracted significant research funding. A team of U of I faculty in 2020 secured a $10 million USDA grant to enhance the sustainability of dairies while developing economic opportunities for the dairy industry.

The grant is currently funding work by 20 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“We’ve already secured a $10 million grant for this facility and we haven’t even built it yet,” Parrella said.

Faculty from U of I’s Department of Plant Sciences and Department of Soil and Water Systems have been collecting soil samples at the demonstration farm for two years in order to conduct detailed soil analysis and establish baseline information for future research.

Parrella said the CAFE project is the result of a three-way partnership between the university, state and Idaho’s dairy industry and other agricultural partners.

“I don’t look at this as a University of Idaho project. I look at this as a partnership,” he said.

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation will contribute $100,000 toward CAFE. IFBF President Bryan Searle, a farmer from Shelley, said the university’s vision for the project is exciting and it is a privilege for Farm Bureau to be involved with it.

In a letter of support for the project that Searle sent U of I, he said, “Projected to be the largest integrated research facility focused on dairy and allied industry in the United States, CAFE will enhance a national and international reputation that will reflect the size, quality and importance of the industry it represents and strengthen Idaho’s position on the map as a center for agricultural and food innovation and technology.”