McCarty Family Farms first to achieve all four Validus Certifications
By Sherry Bunting (Farmshine 2017)
REXFORD, Kan. — A sunny stop at their most recent location in Scott City was followed by a rainy next day visit to the first western plains location of McCarty Family Farms, LLC in Rexford, Kansas. They are among the four McCarty dairies totaling 8200 cows in western Kansas and Nebraska, where Tom and Judy McCarty and their four sons Mike, Clay, David and Ken set down dairy roots 17 years ago when they left behind their Century farm in Sugar Run, Pennsylvania. Tom and Judy say they made the move to give their sons a chance to fulfill their destiny to dairy.
The past 17 years have been quite a journey, which will bring the McCartys back east building a fifth dairy near the Dannon plant in Minster, Ohio in the coming year, and potentially adding a new farming project to a portion of the Pennsylvania farm they still own. But the story of their journey — their sustainability relationship with Dannon, changes in their feeding and farming methods, as well as their use of genomics — are stories for another day.
What is newsworthy this week — coinciding with an impromptu visit there last week — is the recognition that the four dairies of McCarty Family Farms LLC represent the first in the world to complete all four audit areas for Validus Certification on animal welfare, environmental, on-farm security and worker care. Validus Verification Services is a division of Where Food Comes From, Inc., a highly recognized third-party verification resource for food and agricultural production practices in North America.
Through this process, the McCartys say they have been able to create opportunities. The four dairies average 84 to 88 pounds/cow/day on a predominantly Holstein herd, and somatic cell counts are consistently below 200,000 at each location. In addition to numerous quality awards, McCarty Family Farms were named Innovative Dairy of the Year in 2013 and received the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award in 2014.
While any farm can be doing what’s required for the four Validus Certification areas, Ken McCarty says the documentation takes time. He had the primary responsibility for the Certifications and manages the overall SOPs for the four dairies.
“We are open to new ideas, and when they work, we like to implement them in a cookie-cutter approach at all locations,” says his father Tom. He and Judy have recently completed the process of transitioning McCarty Family Farms to their four sons.
“The tough part (of Validus) is being able to take what we’re already doing and get it documented and add audit-value to it,” Ken explains. In addition to the Validus work and SOP management, Ken is involved in the public relations work of the business and consumer relations with Dannon. Brother David works out of the family’s office in Colby and is heavily involved in the financial management, including the new project in Ohio. Mike and Clay each oversee the operations of two of the four dairies – Mike with Bird City and Beaver City, Clay with Rexford and Scott City.
What has helped them achieve Validus Certifications in animal care and worker care is that they have many long-term employees and multiple members of families in their employ. For example, a longtime herdsman’s wife is now a supervisor in the on-farm milk separation and condensing plant at Rexford.
Perhaps most significant is the camaraderie and respect that go both ways here. Not only is teamwork obvious, a family atmosphere prevails. The employees know that each member of the McCarty family has done every job on the dairy.
“Yes, we’ve grown, but we are very much a family dairy and a family business,” says Ken’s mom Judy, explaining how their growing family business is comprised of other families also. They provide a rewarding work environment and participate in the lives of their employees — attending graduations, birthday parties, and other celebrations.
Their close connection with consumers is a big aspect of these certifications, but also their commitment to being a force for sustaining the communities they live and work in. Their dairies are open to tours and see over 4000 schoolchildren and countless adults throughout the year.
“When we go into the freestalls with school tours, the cattle are used to people being there. They are like a herd of pets,” Judy relates.
While they hire an outside firm to work with their environmental planning and documentation and for the on-farm security piece of Validus Certification, the animal welfare piece is close to home. Judy smiles recounting the cow Ken just could not beef. She came to them 10 to 12 years ago in a load from New Holland Sales Stables, put together by Dale Hostetter.
“Number 5825,” Ken says shaking his head, admitting the cow that arrived shortly after he graduated from K-State was one that “must have been a show cow. You could put a halter on her and lead her around like a pet. We milked her three years, and then couldn’t get her pregnant. We sent her down the alley and Brock (Peters) and I were sorting and I said, ‘you know I can’t do it.’” They kept her in the special needs area of the open lots, where she lived another five years as, well, a pet.
The conversation turns to other special cows throughout the years, and the way they monitor the mentality of cattle they raise and have purchased at intervals to keep a herd that fits with the way things are done here. Most all the former drylot areas are now freestall barns. “If cows don’t fit the mentality here, they go,” said Ken. (Except for 5825, of course.)
Developing — and culling for — a herd with the right mentality is a big part of both the animal welfare and worker care pieces of successful Certification. They have a culture of care here that starts before the cows are born, working with their heifer raisers with a value-added program.
While Ken and his brothers have progressed into their business management roles, Ken says his favorite day of the work week is Sunday because it’s the day he either spends with his family, or the cows. The brothers alternate Sundays and keep just a skeleton crew to do the essentials of milking and feeding at each location that day.
“My Sunday is a day to walk every pen. It’s quiet. The phones aren’t ringing. There are no visitors. It’s a good day to see every cow on the dairy and to get a lot done,” says Ken. “There’s a lot of value in that.”
In fact, one aspect of animal care that has come from the vision of those working Sundays is to “shock the system” on a monthly or biweekly basis. In addition to ‘owner time’ in the pens on alternating Sundays, the McCartys have two employees whose sole job it is to go around from farm to farm every week and look at the processes and the cattle to guard against incremental change and procedural drift.
“We think the dairy is made better when we can step back and look at things with different eyes,” Ken notes. “A fresh set of eyes will always find something within the system — from the people to the cows — and bring it back before there’s a problem.”
Sitting down with Tom, Judy and Ken at the Rexford location, where they also have what may be the nation’s only on-farm, farm scale three-stage falling film milk condensing plant, the passion for the business and eagerness to embrace new ideas are evident.
The on-farm plant — nestled between Tom and Judy’s house and the first of the two freestall barns at Rexford — processes 680,000 pounds of milk daily from all four of their western dairies. The milk is pasteurized and the cream is separated for cream markets, while the condensed skim, along with some cream, goes to Dannon Fort Worth. Milk from 2800 cows at the Rexford location is piped directly to the plant from the parlor and the milk from the other three locations is trucked in. Like the dairies, the plant runs 24/7/365.
The McCartys worked with K-State in the west, just as they have with Penn State in the past to design the barns and layouts for each dairy they’ve built and expanded along the way, as well as the two locations they renovated. In fact, five years ago they had four building projects and a renovation underway. They were building the plant, expanding the Rexford dairy, building a transition area, building in Bird City and renovating Scott City at the same time.
The 2300-cow Scott City location was acquired by the McCartys in 2012. The 12-year-old facility uses a 60-stall rotary parlor, which has been upgraded. The other three locations use parallel parlors.
Kansan Brock Peters manages the day-to-day operations at Scott City and will be moving to Ohio to manage the new dairy, where the building plans include an 80-stall rotary.
“It’s the most efficient way to milk cows,” says Brock of rotary parlors, which he has found to be “the easiest system on the cows and the people.”
Watching cows milk on the rotary at Scott City through the large windows in the corridor from the office while waiting for the interview with Brock, I meet the electrician, nutritionist, uniform pickup, employees and others as they stream through. Like Rexford, there is a calmness to the pace of perpetual motion here. The electrician remarks that the McCartys have really improved the place.
Brock is wearing a T-shirt with the words “Discipline equals freedom,” and during our tour of the sand-bedded freestall barns with gravity flow sand lanes with a new K-State design that allows for 97% sand reclamation, we talk about some of the challenges of Validus Certification and other progressive pursuits here.
“There’s no progress in the comfort zone,” he states. The thought comes from the book Extreme Ownership (How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win). Brock stumbled across the book in his appreciation for military lore. “It turned out to be a great leadership book about combat in business and life.”
The quote sums up the perpetual motion and continuous improvement at McCarty Family Farms.
As we walk through the freestall barn, we talk about the climate here. The low humidity is good for cattle, but the weather extremes can be challenging at times. The recent April 30 / May 1 blizzard was one example, hitting harder to the south where the McCartys did lose heifers among their heifer raisers in Southwest Kansas where there were also significant cattle losses among beef feedlots and cow/calf operations.
The unusual spring storm brought a lot of rain in front of the 20-plus inches of snow and high winds. “The toughest thing for us at this location was getting the feed laid down,” Brock relates, adding that the wheat crop among growers is coming out of the trauma and the corn seed was still in the bag.
Like the family he works for, Brock enjoys taking on challenges, and he really likes working with cows and people and developing the culture of care here with a pride in producing high quality milk for Dannon.
All four locations use mechanical teat preparation. “We really like this system,” says Brock. “The machine is doing the hardest part of the prep and we know it’s consistent.”
The McCartys have started their own parlor repair group, which helps them keep equipment maintained and performing in a region that doesn’t have a dense dairy infrastructure. The electrical upgrades and energy audits at all locations conserve costs and energy.
Water recycling is also integral to the area as the dairies sit above the Ogallala Aquifer. At Rexford, for example water is recycled through not only the dairy, but also the milk separation and condensing plant — meaning that not only is wash water reclaimed for other uses, but also some of the water from the milk also returns to other uses (primarily drinking water for the cows) as well as being diverted when needed for irrigation back on the land.
Brock points out the importance of upgrading systems and maintaining equipment because this contributes to worker care and animal welfare as well as the sustainability of the operations. When equipment and systems are working as they should, employees can concentrate on their work with fewer breakdowns or emergencies to deal with. At Scott City, part of Brock’s job is to identify and troubleshoot small problems before they become big ones.
“I just like cows and animal health,” he says. Like the family he works for, he adds that, he enjoys “making things better and trying to help cows reach their maximum potential.”
Throughout the interview, the McCartys repeatedly noted the efforts of their team of employees. “We couldn’t ask for better people,” says Ken. “They have really bought into what we are doing here.”
Marketing milk directly through a cost-plus relationship with Dannon works outside of the Federal Order system and allows both parties to operate in a more stable pricing environment.
This relationship has progressed to where the McCartys implemented Dannon’s non-GMO standards in 2017 after going to all of their growers and getting them on board. All feeds coming onto their dairies are tested at the weigh station.
The relationship with Dannon also gives the McCartys and their employees a product to look for in the retail dairy case — yogurt from the Dannon Company’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas (a non-pool plant) is made with the condensed milk from their four dairies.
Near Celena, Ohio, MVP Dairy is the 4500-cow operation the McCartys own in partnership with the VanTillburgs, supplying the Dannon plant in nearby Minster.