OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A multimillion-dollar dairy expansion at Oklahoma State University is a big step toward reversing the trend of shrinking dairy production in the state, industry representatives said.

The state school unveiled a new state-of-the-art barn and student living quarters at the dairy center on April 5, completing the first phase of ongoing construction and improvements at the nearly 100-year-old center. The work is possible through a 2014 Ferguson Family Foundation gift that initially provided $2 million and committed up to $4 million in matching support, the Journal Record reported .

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, beef cattle are more important to Oklahoma than the dairy industry: As of Jan. 1, Oklahoma ranchers reported 2.1 million head of beef cattle and only 39,000 head of dairy cattle. That number has been trending down for the last several years. In 2008, the state had about 68,000 head of milk producers, producing 1.1 billion pounds of milk, compared with about 692 million pounds now.

Meanwhile, the milk trend has been running in the opposite direction in Texas, although at a slower pace from 418,000 head 10 years ago to 475,000 head now. Overall, the Plains states, including Texas and South Dakota, have posted some of the largest milk production gains over the past five years, according to a recent study commissioned by the Central Milk Marketing Order.

Dairy producer Angie Meyer said the dairy upgrade is badly needed. Milk prices have been low, feed costs are increasing, and the next generation of farmers is being lured away from the family business, she said.

"Oklahoma is a deficit state, which means there's not enough milk produced here to meet demand. All of the milk produced in Oklahoma stays in Oklahoma," Meyer said. "Our hope is that it will increase dairy knowledge among our college students and to get them go into the dairy industry if they're not already in it.

"Education is key," she said. "Both of my children went to OSU, and my youngest daughter worked at the dairy. Anything you can do to increase your science-based knowledge in the industry is going to be a plus to your operations."

Erich Wehrenberg, an OSU agronomy research station superintendent who still helps with the family farm in Loyal, said the value of the expansion is difficult to measure. He also worked at the facility during his undergraduate studies.

"This will have an obvious impact on the industry," Wehrenberg said. "Research, extension and education are the lifeblood of agriculture in Oklahoma and the backbone of a production-based economy. Any improvements in the facilities and facility are a direct investment in the dairy industry overall. This will have immeasurable benefits."

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Information from: The Journal Record, http://www.journalrecord.com