By Matt Reese
It is no secret that times have been tough for the dairy industry — so tough that change is inevitable. Some dairies have shut their doors. Others have grown larger or found a niche and specialized. MVP Dairy in Mercer County has reinvented the dairy supply chain.
The jaw-dropping facility right on U.S. 33 has garnered plenty of attention in the last few months. The new dairy is home to nearly 4,500 cows that live in 6 freestall barns built for optimum cow comfort. The cows are milked in a state-of-the-art carousel milking parlor that is open for the public to see, first-hand, the origins of their dairy products from the soil to the grocery store.
The impressive operation is a partnership between McCarty Family Farms and VanTilburg Farms and a close collaboration with the Danone facility in nearby Minster, the largest yogurt-making plant in the U.S., which produces leading brands such as Activia, Danimals, Dannon, Light & Fit and Oikos. Between 350,000 to 360,000 pounds of milk per day is produced at MVP Dairy. The milk is Non-GMO Project Verified for Danone North America and it all makes the 18-mile trip to begin the process of yogurt making within hours of leaving the cows. MVP’s milk accounts for nearly 10% of the milk processed in Minster. Danone-Minster also receives milk from nearly 40 other dairies within 100 miles of the plant.
The project got its start with the intersection of the vision of two families working several states away from each other. VanTilburg Farms has a rich history in the Mercer County area. In addition to grain farming, the VanTilburg family business has grown and evolved into an agricultural service provider in northwestern Ohio, specializing in multiple services including cover crops and custom fertilizer and chemical application, poultry litter, soil sampling and trucking. Other business ventures include a commercial grain elevator, crop insurance business, trucking division and an excavation company.
“Five years ago our family was looking to diversify. We were grain farmers and riding the roller coaster of the commodity markets up and down. We’d been doing a lot of value added
cover crops and sustainability practices. We wanted to find a way to get some financial benefit from doing those practices. We researched some projects and came across the Dannon pledge and realized the things they were looking for from their dairy farmers we were already doing on the farm side, but we didn’t know anything about dairy farming,” said Kyle VanTilburg, co-owner of MVP dairy. “We started researching dairy farming and happened to meet up with the McCarty family. They were in Ohio actually looking at building or buying a dairy. We decided to partner up. We vetted each other for a while and decided to build a new facility close to our land base. That is how we got to where we are today.”
The McCarty family has been milking for four generations. They operate dairies across the country in Beaver City, Neb.; Bird City, Kan.; Rexford, Kan.; Scott City, Kan.; and now MVP Dairy. The McCarty family built a relationship with Danone through their work with dairy and the VanTilbergs had the land base and conservation practices in place near the Minster plant, so they decided it made sense to team up to serve the Minster production facility.
“Dannon is a very important part of the project. What they want to see is from the soil to the yogurt cup now and we can provide that transparency all the way through the food chain and that is really what the partnership is all about. We want to provide a quality product from the soil to a cup of yogurt,” VanTilburg said. “We are in a unique situation wit
h this partnership. We provide non-GMO milk to Dannon for their non-GMO line of products. This was a new product line they added to the Danone Minster plant. With that scenario we are a cost plus operation, so we basically absorb those highs and lows all the time. [The McCarty family] already had a partnership like this with Dannon and they brought that to the table. We were able to negotiate off of that existing contract that they had. We miss out on the highs, but we also miss out on those lows. We wanted to figure out a way to avoid the big fluctuations in the market.”
The facilities were designed with the latest technology to maximize animal comfort and minimize environmental impacts.
“We are looking at a 4,500 freestall dairy facility, an 80-stall rotary, six free-stall barns, a milking parlor, and a learning center. The total construction was around 14 months,” said Jetse Boersma with Homan, Inc. that helped design and construct the facility. “They are milking 4,000 cows a day, around 600 cows an hour, three times a day. We all had the same vision, but it took a little different design. We started with the first floor, the second floor is offices and the beginning of the learning center, and the third floor is the viewing area. We needed a little more height in the building to make sure we had enough room for the viewing area for the public. The parlor is pretty standard.”
The visitor-friendly facilities are designed to reduce odor and runoff by carefully managing the manure.
“These are flush barns. The floors are on a 2% slope. From the back of the barn to the front of the barn is a 12-foot difference. We recycle all of the manure. It goes through separators. The water gets pumped into tanks and that recycled water is used to flush the barns,” Boersma said. “This was one of the more tricky designs we have ever done. It was a challenge but it was fun. The whole permitting process took 9 months before we could start moving dirt. We started with the feed area and worked our way up to the parlor and the freestall barns. They have every technology that is available right now in this facility.”
The farm uses sand bedding that is reclaimed and reused as bedding. The manure and bedding is flushed from barns using recycled water multiple times per day. Using a four-step process, sand bedding is separated from the manure and reused, which removes approximately 15% of the manure volume.
The processed manure moves to settling basins where 60% of the remaining solids settle and are then removed as nutrient-dense slurry. The remaining liquid flows into an anaerobic treatment cell, resulting in water with little to no odor. About 50% of this water is recycled daily for flushing of the barns. The remaining wastewater is reused for irrigation on no-till crop ground with rotations including cover crops, so there is always a growing crop on the land. The solids are variable-rate applied to area crops according to soil tests.
The barns on the farm are tunnel ventilated to aid wind speed and cooling for the animals, with exhaust out the back of the buildings. The sides of the barns are constructed with a transparent polycarbonate siding that allows natural light in, benefitting the cows and reducing pests.
MVP Dairy works with top experts in animal nutrition and well-being, with all McCarty Family Farms locations already having earned certification by Validus, an independent firm with the most stringent requirements for socially-responsible, scientifically-based, economically-viable and long-term solutions for dairy animal care. To help ensure the strictest animal welfare standards are followed, cameras monitored by a third party company for compliance review are installed throughout the dairy.
“We are constantly striving to provide our cows with first-class care,” said Ken McCarty, co-owner of MVP Dairy.” “We know our cows’ well-being and sustainable farming practices bring value to the foods produced by Danone that are made with our milk so it’s important that we continue to push ourselves to do even better.”
And, that philosophy especially applies when times are tough for the dairy industry.