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Two farming families team up to be one of Ohio’s most valuable players in the dairy industry

Bev Berens for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 September 2019
McCarty and VanTilburg families

When two farms form a partnership that closes the circle on operational and marketing needs for each farm on its own, a creative business fusion is formed.

MVP Dairy LLC in Celina, Ohio, is that fusion where dairy farm meets crop production.

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Although not part of the original plan, a 15,000-square-foot public learning center was a byproduct result in response to community reaction over the farm’s construction and overall misunderstanding of modern agriculture.

The VanTilburgs were looking for a way to level the highs and lows of their cash crop farm and began researching a livestock connection for their commodities. With high standards, they stumbled upon the Danone North America “cost-plus” business model, which shared their vision for restorative agriculture –practices the farm has been honing for years.

The McCartys, dairy farmers in Kansas having an existing relationship with Danone, were looking to expand their fourth-generation farm to an Ohio location in proximity with the Minster, Ohio, Danone facility, the largest manufacturer of yogurt in North America. The two families met by chance at another dairy.

They soon realized their shared set of core business values: best management practices when it comes to protecting soil, groundwater and surface water; excellence in cow care and comfort; employees who are valued and partners treated equitably.

After extensive vetting on both sides, the plan and partnership for MVP was hatched. According to Ken McCarty, the partnership is an even split between the two families.

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“The McCartys bring the dairy industry experience and experience within the Danone model and the relationship,” he says. “The VanTilburgs bring the local knowledge and experience to provide the farm with the type of feeds needed for the dairy cattle.”

The partnership is governed by a five-person board, consisting of two brothers each from the McCarty and VanTilburg families, and herd manager Brock Peters, who had been with the McCarty farm in Kansas for 10 years.

All feed raised in and for the partnership are Non-GMO Project verified. The VanTilburgs utilize technology that has traceability to the acre and a knowledge of all practices and processes of growing feed for the dairy herd on the 4,500 acres of land they operate. Some non-GMO feeds are also purchased locally. Ninety-five percent of their fields receive a cover crop planting, and precision farming technology adjusts inputs as needed and monitors crop removal and nutrient replacement needs per the grid.

Farm specifics

After 14 months of construction, the six tunnel-vented barns on 82 acres were ready for cows. Four hundred 72-inch fans move air inside the barns, keeping cows cool and flies away. A bunk line soaker system over the feed rail ads an extra element of cooling. Sensors turn the soakers on and off based on temperature and humidity.

“The mechanical side of monitoring sensors requires some management, and we are tweaking that for cooling or energy-saving efficiency as we work to maximize both the system and facility,” Peters says. Airflow leaving the barns is directed away from neighbors as best as possible.

Feed commodities are stored and mixed inside the barn to reduce shrink, leaving for a ride of about 100 yards before re-entering the barn and feed alleys. Silage is stored in a 425-foot-by-345-foot bunker with 16-foot walls.

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Set up for 4,500 cows, the farm has yet to reach capacity and is currently milking 3,800 cows in an 80-cow DeLaval rotary parlor. Heifers are raised in Hereford, Texas.

Both farms came to the table strongly in support of third-party audits to retain accountability to high standards of practice from soil to shipped product. As a partnership, they made the decision to expand the number and types of farm audits, not only to comply with local, state and federal regulations, but to hold themselves to a high level of standards and management.

Working with Validus Verification Services, a division of Where Food Comes From, the McCartys were already using third-party verifications on animal welfare standards and environmental verifications. The audits expanded to include more environmental audits, non-GMO audits, a worker audit for human resource practices and an on-farm security audit to help in product traceability, prevent and trace diseases, and monitor disease level to protect the food supply. They also work with university experts on Beef Quality Assurance and Dairy Premium Plus.

Current opportunities

Peters says there was a fair amount of competition among bidders for all the equipment needed to outfit the facility.

“The cattle market was strongly in our favor due to the dairy economic climate, and it was a good time in our opinion to build a farm,” he says. Adding to the advantages were favorable feed costs due to strong yields last fall. “It gave us a good starting point,” he adds.

Financially, interest rates were favorable according to Ken McCarty.

“We have worked with the primary lender on this farm for over a decade. They have a great deal of faith in our abilities and the relationship we have with Dannon and the value of that relationship to remove the peaks and valleys of the traditional dairy market to create a consistent marketplace for our milk,” he says. “Additionally, they have gotten to know the VanTilburg family and have a lot of faith in their abilities and strengths they bring to the partnership and as local stewards of the land and community.”

Overcoming challenges

One of the major hurdles in the process of getting the farm off the ground was the permitting process and the court of public opinion.

“What we learned, is that a lot of the community doesn’t understand agriculture anymore; they are too many generations away from farming to understand how it works modernly,” McCarty says. “That kind of led up to our learning center. We realized through this process, that as producers, we felt responsible to not only milk the cows, but to educate the public on how we do things.

“Large-scale ag has its challenges in terms of acceptance,” McCarty says. “Our goal and hope are that we can show what we do to other dairymen, to the public, and to anyone that wants to come. We want to show that we try our best every day to operate our farm at the highest level possible, whether that is animal care, environmental stewardship, or policies and procedures we put into place to care for our team members, and what we try to engage with our communities who support us as well.”

Allison Ryan, director of marketing and communications, has been working to create the learning center with help in display design and construction from Mix Designs, a company that has worked with other dairies in creating educational exhibits.

The touch screen dairy case offers up stories and fun facts about dairy foods and people behind them

“Right now, the learning center is available by appointment only until everything is in place,” Ryan says. The plan is to open the center to school, 4-H, community and other groups who wish to learn where their food comes from. She plans to have regular open hours for general admission beginning in October, keeping admission costs low, but also helping offset costs for school groups.

“In Ohio, the average dairy farm size is 130 head per farm,” Ryan says. “Compared to other states, farm sizes are very small in Ohio, and Ohioans aren’t used to seeing such large-scale dairy operations. We are now one of the largest operations in the state, and we want to be transparent within our community.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Pictured are MVP Dairy owners (left to right) Dave McCarty, Luke VanTilburg, Matt VanTilburg, Ken McCarty, Clay McCarty, Mike McCarty, as well as general manager Brock Peters.

PHOTO 2: The touch screen dairy case offers up stories and fun facts about dairy foods and the people behind them, including additional dairy farmers that supply milk to Danone North America in Minster, Ohio. Photos courtesy of MVP Dairy.

Bev Berens is a freelance writer in Holland, Michigan.

Follow MVP Dairy updates at their Facebook page.

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