Condensing Milk, Conserving Water and Energy
The McCarty Family Farm and Dairy has three locations in Kansas: Rexford, Bird City, and Scott City, and one facility in Beaver City, Nebraska. Their four facilities milk approximately 8,500 cows and raise the majority of their young stock needs. The Rexford facility was built specifically with energy and water efficiency in mind. The McCarty Family Farm has entered into a partnership with Dannon yogurt, which compels them to keep up with a very high demand and maintain a serious level of production. These dairies are innovative because they allow The McCarty Family Farm to produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of raw milk daily while also remaining committed to sustainable practices.
The McCarty Family Farm has been deeply invested in the judicious application of water and energy in their milk production. These facilities reuse a tremendous amount of water while using lagoons and a water recycling system. As such, they are highly awarded: The McCarty Family Farm received the 2009 Kansas Distinguished Dairy Family of the Year, 2013 Innovative Dairy Farm of the Year, 2014 US Dairy Sustainability Award by the Innovation Center for US Dairy, and they are part of the Thomas County Sustainability Committee.
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While all of their dairies should be recognized for their sustainable practices, The McCarty Dairy at the Rexford, Kansas, truly stands out for its watering techniques. The four dairies combined produces nearly 640,000 pounds of raw milk daily, which then flows into an advanced evaporative condensing milk processing plant located at the Rexford site. That plant reclaims and reuses roughly 50,000-60,000 gallons of freshwater daily—which over the course of a year can approach 20 million gallons, or about 61 acre-feet. This process separates the cream from the milk, and then the cream is pasteurized, stored, and shipped to a Daisy brand sour cream facility in Texas. The skim milk is condensed through evaporation, pasteurized, and shipped to a Dannon yogurt facility in Dallas, Texas. In the evaporative condensing milk processing plant, the water is either (1) filtered and purified and reused in the plant, (2) diverted to the dairy as drinking water for cows, or (3) dumped to lagoons where it is used as irrigation water for crops. The irrigation water can provide nearly 2 inches of irrigation on 1,200 acres.
The reclaimed and reused water that becomes drinking water for their cows provides enough water to support an additional 500 head of milking stock. Through their prudent water usage, they have reduced withdrawals from their well while increasing their number of cows. The water allotment for their Rexford location is 250 acre-feet, and they are projected to use 225 acre-feet this year. Water quality is also an important detail that the McCarty Family Farms have not overlooked. Distilled water from the evaporator has a lower number of minerals, so the cleaning products are more effective when cleaning the milking system and sanitizing parlor. Furthermore, the family conducts third party environmental audits on all dairy facilities on a quarterly basis in order to monitor their well water and ensure that their groundwater supplies maintain the highest standards.
For decades, droughts and aquifer depletion have generated concern about the availability of groundwater in Kansas. One of the highlights of The McCarty Dairy’s advanced condensing processes is the ability to reclaim scarce water supplies for communities that are already reliant on rapidly declining water tables. Instead of shipping the water to Texas, where the water will just be discarded during sour cream and yogurt production, the McCarty’s evaporative condensing makes use of the water at the site of milk production in Kansas. Importantly, this reclamation reduces dependence on groundwater from the already stressed High Plains Aquifer.
The keystone of our water conservation efforts is the processing plant. It allows us to reclaim 60,000 gallons of fresh water every day… When you look at our dairy facilities in general, we recapture almost every drop of rainwater that falls on our facilities. We’re going as far as waterless urinals. We’re looking at things like smart cow cooling systems… Whatever we can do to try to reduce the amount of freshwater that we pull from our well is a great thing for not only the state, but… we think long and hard about [questions like] ‘Will this be here twenty years from now, for our kids or our grandkids, or the communities in general? How can we preserve what we’ve put together for the long term?’ It’s pretty tough to do anything without water.
In addition to prudent water usage and improved water quality, the practices implemented by the McCarty Family Farms also reduce energy usage. Not only does reclaiming the water decrease their dependence on groundwater, it also reduces the number of trucks needed to ship their products to Texas. Their style of reclaiming the water and condensing the milk reduces their freight by an astonishing 75 percent. Lowering the number of trucks taking the 670-mile trip to Texas results in substantial diesel savings—while also reducing the McCarty Family Farm’s fossil fuel reliance and greenhouse gas emissions. The reclaimed water that is used to supplement irrigation is very nutrient dense, so they rarely use commercial fertilizer, which saves energy while simultaneously keeping groundwater supplies clean. They are shifting management of their farms to focus more on water conservation via a collaborative partnership with local farmer and member of the Sheridan 6 Lema, Mitchell Baalman.
This efficient line of production reveals an important series of interconnected benefits: saving water also saves energy. In addition, this process also allows the dairy to distribute the freshest milk products because the streamlined water and energy usage results in quicker delivery. Ken McCarty explains,
We are keeping the water that is pulled from a Kansas well and we’re keeping it in the state of Kansas. By doing that, we reduce the trucking needs on the finished goods by about 75 percent. So obviously, we use a tremendous amount of less energy through diesel fuel, [it’s] more labor efficient, [and there is] less wear-and-tear on roads and bridges. The very unique thing about this process is because we’re directly tied to the farm and directly tied to the processor, it allows for incredibly fresh product to arrive at the doorstep of Dannon Yogurt. And ultimately, very fresh product to arrive on the store shelf and the consumer’s refrigerator. There are times where we can harvest milk from a cow, process it, and have it at Dannon’s doorstep in 24 hours or less. So it’s incredibly fresh.
The McCarty Family Farm’s commitment to energy efficiency is also very apparent in the facilities themselves. Heat reclamation units are in place everywhere they are economically feasible. They use heat reclamation units to capture excess heat from their evaporators that would typically just disappear into the air to preheat the water in their boilers, which enables them to use less natural gas. Their milk pumps and chiller pumps have variable speed drives to avoid increased energy consumption. The McCarty Family Farms have upgraded their facilities’ lighting to high-efficiency T5 lamps so they now achieve double the output of lighting for their cattle with less energy than conventional lighting.
Even the McCarty’s equipment has been upgraded to be more efficient. They have upgraded all their older model loaders and skid loaders, brought in newer models, and participate in the Caterpillar Power by the Hour program. All of this equipment is monitored by Caterpillar staff via satellite to detect any mechanical failures, fuel burn, fuel efficiency, idle hours and work hours, and so forth. For loaders, this resulted in a reduction of the wheel loaders on all facilities and also upgraded to tier 4 interim compliant wheel loaders and they are gradually rolling into tier 4 complete skid loaders which reduces methane emission and fuel burn. Using idle-smart technology, units shut off if they sit idle for over five minutes. While they currently do not utilize renewable energy on their farms, Ken McCarty stated that by using Midwest Energy, 19 percent of their energy comes from renewable sources (primarily wind energy). They have completed a full energy audit on the processing facility, have conducted compressed air audits, and have completed energy audits for three of the four dairy facilities as well. Suffice to say, they are always looking for ways to increase efficiency in their operations, and perpetually seek out an overall more efficient dairy that generates high-quality products:
In our model we can’t cut corners in terms of quality. We’re held to standards above and beyond federal or industry standards… So we have no choice but to pursue the highest levels of quality, whether it be milk quality, feed quality, quality of animal welfare, or stewardship. There is a tremendous amount of scrutiny as to what we do, and with that scrutiny comes a fair amount of added pressure. But at the end of the day, we’ve got a really great team of people that surround us and it’s nothing that can’t be handled.
Reusing and reclaiming water in conjunction with the energy efficiency in their facilities and equipment has shown that with some advanced investments, dairy farms can keep up with a very high demand while remaining committed to sustainable practices. Affiliated with these environmentally-conscious practices are also valuable financial rewards. These practices have saved the McCarty’s a tremendous amount of money: in the first six months of their participation in the Power by the Hour program, they saved over $30,000 in fuel burn. The McCarty Family Farms also work closely with Midwest Energy, their electrical provider. They participate in the Large Interruptible Service Rider (LISR) program, which helps the utility stabilize loads but results in a reduction of energy bills for the McCarty’s. The farms offer use of their "standby power plants” and provide backup power during times of high demand. That is to say, if Midwest Energy is reaching the point of maximum electricity they can generate, The McCarty Farms step off the grid and generate their own electricity on their farms with their own standby power plants. This results in discounted energy prices for the farms, but it also creates a more stable power supply for the community as a whole.
Large dairies can potentially consume and waste very large amounts of water, fuel, and energy, and dairy farmers therefore have an important responsibility to behave as environmental stewards. The McCarthy Family Farms have done just that on a number of levels, and they also believe their practices, while cutting-edge, are "absolutely replicable.” The McCarty Family Farms are currently the only farm using a three-stage falling film evaporator in the country. However, it is a common condensing process that is just done on a very large scale with a compact unit. Ken McCarty feels this is the future of the dairy industry, and the practices implemented on his farms must be adopted across the nation:
Dairies will be pushed farther from population centers. As such, it will be important to maintain the portability of that product. We need to create ways to find efficiency, and freight reduction is a phenomenal way to create those efficiencies.
The McCarty’s devotion to sustainable practices is also apparent in other actions. Their farm generates a lot of manure and effluent which they apply to their cropland as fertilizers. This brings additional benefits to the soil including microbes, increased organic matter, and higher levels of micronutrients. McCarty is also trying to establish relationships with Bee Care organizations and Pheasants Forever to convert unused spaces on the farms into pollinator and wildlife habitats. They work closely with Beef Quality Assurance certification, and participate in animal welfare programs, including the Validus animal welfare program. The McCarty Dairy is one of only a few dairies that have been able to complete that respected certification. Ken breaks down his operation’s approach for treating the cows:
We try to eliminate and remove any and all possible stressors that could impact her. We have staff in that area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that assists any cows that are giving birth… Our goal is to have as healthy as a herd as possible.
With their advances in reclaiming and reusing water, The McCarty Family Farms do not withdraw any more water from their wells than they did prior to their construction of the evaporative condensing milk processing plant. Their approach took time; they modified their practices and learned the nuances of their complicated system, but it resulted in reduced withdrawals from their wells. By investing in energy-saving facilities, technologies, and practices, they are able to reduce their electricity bills and reliance on fossil fuels. Their facilities are capable of very high levels of production and keep up with the high demand for their milk, while simultaneously making a serious push towards more sustainable practices for Kansas dairy farms. Ken concludes:
We take a broader vision of sustainability. When that word first began to be thrown about it was more focused on environmental sustainability, or being green. In our conversations with people, all over, the first thing that we tell them is that you can implement the greatest environmental practices in the world, be the most animal-friendly or environmentally-friendly facility in the world, but if you go broke doing it, it was all for nothing. So in our mind, sustainability starts with creating a business model that creates long-term profitability for not only that business but all of the supporting businesses that feed into it. Ultimately, if your business is profitable, and all the supporting businesses that feed into it are profitable…that turnover of cash will help make your community sustainable.
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