Excavation crews have started laying the groundwork on local farmland for the University of Idaho-led Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Idaho CAFE), which will include the nation’s largest research dairy.
Earthmoving began on May 4. Once the site is prepared, construction workers will begin pouring cement for the milking parlor. The first cows may arrive at Idaho CAFE before the end of 2024, with milking starting in early 2025.
U of I and its partners had hoped to start work last summer but have reaped rewards from their choice to delay building Idaho CAFE, allowing time for exorbitant construction costs to fall. The price of building the project’s initial phase, which will include a 2,000-cow dairy adjacent to a 640-acre research farm, dropped by roughly $4 million during the hiatus following a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project on June 30, 2022.
“The outlook is very bright,” said Mark McGuire, director of the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station. “The lower bids mean we have sufficient funds to fully build this project.”
The general contractor, McAlvain Construction of Boise, suggested pausing the start of work and rebidding the subcontracts during winter, banking that labor and material costs would drop and that a more competitive field of bidders would emerge. The strategy worked, as bids from subcontractors for a greater scope of work recently came back significantly below last summer’s numbers.
Fuel prices were high and excavation companies were involved in many jobs last summer. U of I received a single bid for the excavation work. By contrast, several excavation companies competed for the recent bid. Supply chain constraints have also relaxed, leading to more affordable materials such as concrete.
“This has been such a long time coming and the excitement last year at the groundbreaking was just overwhelming how many people showed up,” said Tammie Newman, director of pre-construction with McAlvain. “It was probably the biggest attended groundbreaking I’d ever been to. Now the dream is a reality. When they sent me the picture of all of the equipment on site ready to start moving dirt, I was so excited.”
Construction of the milk barn should move quickly, though installing state-of-the-art equipment in the milking parlor will take more time.
Design for the project’s second phase should be completed during this summer, with the bid process occurring from September through November. Phase two will include manure handling facilities and lagoons, maternity barn, feed area, an office building and structures to provide shade and wind protection for cows in a dry lot with several pens for research purposes.
The improved budgetary outlook also reopens the door to completing a third phase — a cross-ventilated barn capable of housing between 800 and 1,200 cows. The barn would provide greater comfort to cows and would be useful in studies comparing productivity and environmental impacts of barn versus dry-lot production. Work on the barn would likely commence in 2025, with the dairy gradually ramping up its occupancy throughout the first few years.
Idaho CAFE has gained momentum recently beyond the improved construction cost outlook. The budget that recently passed through Idaho’s House and Senate contains funding to hire a ruminant nutritionist, a forage specialist and an air-quality engineer working at the facility.
Cargill and Burley-based Redox Bio-Nutrients have both announced $500,000 donations toward CAFE since the beginning of 2023, bringing the total contributions from industry for the project to almost $9 million.
In September 2022, the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners awarded $23.25 million from the sale of U of I College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) endowment land in Caldwell that was no longer being used for experimental farming to support Idaho CAFE. The state legislature approved $10 million toward the project in 2018.
Furthermore, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association contributed $2 million toward the purchase of farmland in Rupert to house the facility.
“Without the support first and foremost of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, we wouldn’t have been able to purchase that site, and now with all of these other allied industry partners coming on board we will be able to build a facility that will meet the needs of the dairy industry and serve the citizens of Idaho,” McGuire said.
Research at CAFE will help develop strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from animals, housing areas, waste systems and in-field applications, advancing the dairy industry’s nationwide net zero initiative. The facility will even seek markets for dairy waste, which may be made into valuable byproducts such as bioplastics and transportable fertilizers.
The facility will be designed with flexibility in mind. As the project receives additional funding, more options will be possible to add extra components and address a wider variety of scientific and research questions.
“The manure handling system is designed to be flexible so we can put in new components and test them as any new technology might come forward,” McGuire said. “We can also install a methane digestor. If it works, we can keep it in operation, or we can unplug it and put something else in its place.”
The project has already generated over $13 million in grant activity and supports the work of more than 30 graduate students and numerous undergraduates hired as research assistants.