REXFORD, Kan. – To some, Tom McCarty’s decision in 2000 to move his family’s century-old dairy from Pennsylvania to the plains of Kansas may have seemed like quite a leap of faith.
For McCarty…well, not so much.
“To make a long story short, there was absolutely no future [in Pennsylvania] long term to be in the dairy business,” said McCarty, whose dairy was milking about 200 cows daily prior to re-locating near Colby.
Tom and his four sons – Clay, Mike, David and Ken – together own McCarty Family Farms, LLC, with dairies in Rexford, Bird City and Scott City. The three dairies milk about 7,200 cows – 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- and produce about 59,000 gallons of milk a day.
In 2012, the McCartys announced the completion of a multi-million-dollar milk processor and evaporator at the Rexford facility. In June, they signed an exclusive rights agreement to provide all of the condensed skim milk for Dannon Yogurt’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We are a family dairy, I think that’s a key reason they chose to work with us,” Tom McCarty said. “We’re quality conscious; we believe in consistency and I guess they look at us as a family.”
Tom McCarty’s great grandfather started the family business in northeast Pennsylvania 105 years ago, milking seven cows. Tom’s grandfather had 20 milking cows, and Tom’s father doubled the business to 40 milking cows.
“In 1970, my wife and I built a new facility, and got up to 80 cows, [and soon after] we doubled it to about 150,” Tom said.
All four sons were active in the dairy growing up. As young adults, they showed an interest in being partners, but the Pennsylvania dairy was not going to grow enough to support five families.
“Our options were few and far between to stay in the ag side of things, to continue to grow and stay in the dairy industry,” said David McCarty, who graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in animal science in 2002. “You move to western Kansas, there’s feed, and there’s nothing holding you back as far as growing…so that was the biggest draw.”
The Dairy Grows
In 2000, McCarty Family Farms’ new Kansas operation was milking 800 cows, and was primed for new opportunities.
“Economics changed, the dairy industry changed, the lending industry changed, and we were forced into milking more cows in a less expensive way,” said Ken McCarty, also a K-State animal sciences graduate. “So we added some open lots, pushed up to about 1,200 head of milking cows, and a little bit later added more open lots and pushed upwards of about 1,600 head of milking cows.”
By 2009, McCarty Family Farms added a heifer yard with 3,500 animal units, and had nearly 6,000 head of livestock at the Rexford location alone.
Soon, the company also built dairies in Bird City and Scott City.
“We went and asked them to consider expanding to Bird City,” said Cathy Domsch, the executive director of Bird City Century II Development Foundation. “The opportunity I saw was getting kids in our schools; that was my number-one goal in getting a dairy.”
Notes Ken McCarty: “We didn’t realize that was an impact that we’d have when we moved out here. Where we grew up, the economy was very diverse and ag was just a small piece of the pie back there (in Pennsylvania). Here, it’s more of an ag-based economy, and ag-based communities. We didn’t understand the impact that 20, 30, 40 kids would have on a local school district.
Domsch said that an added 30 students to her town’s schools translates to more than $200,000 in state funding. Likewise, in Colby and the surrounding school district, enrollment has increased by at least 32 students.
“By bringing the McCarty Dairy to northwest Kansas and creating the jobs and…increasing the enrollment in schools, that has made a huge impact for us,” said Christy Rocca, director of the Thomas County Economic Development Alliance. “This is what it’s going to take to bring people back to northwest Kansas. This is what it’s going to take to stop that decrease in population.”
Care for Natural Resources
In the main facility at Rexford, McCarty Family Farms has positioned itself as a “net-neutral, or a net-negative water user,” according to Ken McCarty.
“We’ve added 500 head of lactating cows,” he said. “Cows drink a lot of water, [but] we actually draw less water out of our well today than we did a year ago.”
Water to the facility is filtered, purified and eventually used as drinking water. It is then drawn from the milk in the newly-built evaporator, and used in lagoons and cropland.
“The lifecycle of a gallon of water on this farm is pretty dynamic,” Ken McCarty said. “Water can be recycled anywhere from two to six times on this dairy before it eventually ends up out on the fields.
“We use zero commercial fertilizer on our ground and we also have enough effluent waste to spread on other farmers’ grounds, where they have to use zero commercial fertilizers. We recycle all of our sand bedding. Everything is done on these farms for economic reasons but also for sustainability reasons. We try to recycle and re-use and be as efficient as we can be.”
Taking care of the land “is what we do,” Tom said. “We take pride in taking good care of cattle; employees get a lot of training in doing everything properly. Environmentally, we’ve had a very good relationship with the [Kansas Department of Health and Environment].”
Relationship with K-State
David and Ken McCarty say their years at K-State helped them develop relationships that have extended well into their professional life. Tom McCarty notes that several members of the extension and teaching faculty – especially Mike Brouk, John Smith, Joe Harner and John Shirley – helped McCarty Family Farms even before the move to Kansas.
“K-State had and continues to have a great reputation,” Tom said. “In Pennsylvania, we had a good relationship with Penn State extension and it was the same atmosphere here. People you can trust; we worked very well.”
Ken noted that the university’s staff helped with the design of the dairy and financial decisions.
“K-State helped with the dairy’s overall concept and the basic ideas and critical components,” he said. “We don’t have time to pour over research journals and do studies, that’s why we lean on those guys. They’ve been a phenomenal help.”
The farm’s system is so efficient that milk from Kansas goes from “cow to cup” in about 48 hours. That includes shipping the product to Dannon’s Texas facility.
“This agreement…allows us to reduce or eliminate volatility [in milk markets],” Ken said. “Hopefully it will mean a more stable business for my son to come back to, my brothers’ kids to come back to. Ultimately we hope a cheaper product for [consumers].”
Noted David McCarty: “It’s a unique partnership. It’s the only one that’s really like this in the country at the moment. It’s great to be part of, obviously. Plus, we get to do what we enjoy, which is pretty cool in itself. I don’t wake up and go to work every day; I get to go to the dairy.”
Looking back over 12 years, Tom said that it’s satisfying to see McCarty Family Farms’ success and the positive impact it has had on Kansas.
“Where we’re going to be in a year, or five years, I don’t know,” he said. “We’re always open to getting better; if it takes getting larger, we have no qualms about that. We’ll do what we have to do to go with the flow and try to match whatever forces are there.
“It’s a total package. We’re not driven by just dollars; it’s driven by wanting to be satisfied in total – environmental stewardship, running a clean operation consistently…it’s all part of the equation.”