More cows works for MasCow Dairy

By Jennifer M. Latzke, High Plains Journal, 6/16/2014

A pen of Holsteins relaxes on a compost mound at the MasCow Dairy near Moscow, Kansas. The compost provides a fluffier cushion for the cows, improving their overall comfort (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

A pen of Holsteins relaxes on a compost mound at the MasCow Dairy near Moscow, Kansas. The compost provides a fluffier cushion for the cows, improving their overall comfort. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

“Mas cow” in Spanish means “more cows,” after all. And the production and marketing advantages that come with “more cows” are working for MasCow Dairy and the other two dairies operated by Ag Oasis.With 4,000 cows, the folks at MasCow Dairy of Moscow, Kansas, figured the bilingual play on words was an appropriate name.

MasCow is one of three dairies under the Ag Oasis umbrella, which also includes Tuls Dairy, also in southwest Kansas, and Lost Trail Dairy, in western Oklahoma. It all started when Pete Tuls and his brother Todd Tuls came to western Kansas and started the Tuls Dairy about 15 to 20 years ago, explained Jody Wacker, stewardship manager of MasCow Dairy. Shortly after coming to Kansas from California, the Tuls bought the Lost Trail Dairy in Boise City, Oklahoma. And then in 2007, the partners built the MasCow dairy south of Moscow from the ground up. Wacker and her husband, Adam Wacker, are partners in MasCow Dairy and are the managers of the facility.

MasCow is in a prime location in southwest Kansas—what is quickly becoming the Dairy Case of the state. There are advantages to operating a larger dairy in the region, Wacker explained.

First, there is enough land that a larger dairy can spread out and not sit right on top of neighbors. While dairies like theirs follow Kansas Department of Health and Environment rules, the lack of a lot of surface waters helps keep their environmental impact low. There’s also a favorable climate for cows, as drier weather means cleaner pens and better cow comfort. If there’s an upside to drought, it’s that it means dry pens for dairy cows, Wacker said.

Another benefit is that the area is already familiar with cattle production—although beef cattle have some differences from dairy cattle.

“The infrastructure is already here from the feedyard industry,” Wacker said. “Cattle trucks are already running here, feed rations are familiar but a little more forage-based for dairies rather than concentrated for feedyards. There are enough similarities and differences that we can coexist with feedyards and not compete for resources.” Most of their feed is locally sourced corn and triticale silage, which some farmers grow in a rotation with feedstocks for feedlots that also call the area home.

Being a larger dairy means that MasCow is able to have a veterinarian on-site every other week for herd health checks. The veterinarian also happens to be MasCow’s nutritionist, Wacker said, so he can take a complete look at the cow’s needs.

“Every cow, of course, has RFIDs (radio frequency identification), which records her feed intake and milk output and provides a complete health record for that cow,” she explained.

But, for MasCow, the biggest advantage to its location is just down the road—12 miles to be exact. Kansas Dairy Ingredients in Hugoton, Kansas, takes every drop of MasCow milk its cows can give.

This new processing plant came online in 2013. It concentrates or removes the excess water from the liquid milk it receives from the dairies. The resulting concentrated dairy product is then shipped to Kraft Foods in Springfield, Missouri, for use in its products like Kraft Singles and Velveeta Cheese.

By partnering directly with KDI instead of going through a traditional cooperative, MasCow is able to better plan for upswings and downturns in the milk market.

“The milk market is so volatile, and as a dairy we know that feed is 70 to 80 percent of our cost,” Wacker said. “Back in 2008, 2009, corn prices were up and milk prices were down and a lot of people got out of the business.” However, the partnership with KDI means both sides benefit.

“The main advantage of working with KDI, of this vertical integration through a strategic partnership, is we have a pricing mechanism that allows us to level out what we are paid for the milk,” she added. That allows MasCow to plan and project their earnings somewhat.

“It allows us to plan and forecast,” Wacker said. Additionally, their milk only has 12 miles to go to the processor, versus much longer distances through another marketing outlet. That also comes out to a cost savings when you consider eight to nine loads a day go out the door and down the road to KDI.

However, there are some challenges to running a dairy in western Kansas. Water and environmental impacts are usually the chief concerns of any dairy, and even more so in times of record drought.

“We try to be mindful and good stewards of our water,” Wacker said. “We use our water at least three times. We use water to help cool down our milk. Then, we reuse that water to wash down the milking parlor. Then, that water goes to our lagoon where it is then spread on crops.”

Labor is another challenge. Hiring and retaining a stable labor force can be a challenge for anyone in agriculture today, especially when there is competition from the oil and gas industry, Wacker said. The three Ag Oasis dairies employ a total of 80 over all three farms, she said. And they offer benefits that are meant to attract stable employees

“We have a competitive starting pay and most of our employees come to us with zero experience with cows but we train them,” Wacker said.

Consumer perceptions are also another challenge that Wacker works to address. She leads tours through the dairy by appointment as a way of educating school children and neighboring consumers about the dairy, cattle production and agriculture in western Kansas. One question she’s frequently asked is about the safety of milk.

“We test every load of milk that leaves here and then it’s re-tested again when it gets to Kansas Dairy Ingredients,” she said. With a veterinarian on-site weekly and RFIDs to track them, each cow has individualized health plans.

Cow comfort is key to milk output, and that’s another question that visitors raise. For example, the dairy uses hills in the pens made up of composted wood chips and other material that actually is a soft and fluffy surface that the cows prefer to lay on, Wacker said.

Wacker said the dairy is always creatively thinking of ways to address issues that affect their cow comfort and production. She said that being larger helps because they can take a systems approach to fine-tuning the dairy and making adjustments. She and her husband used to operate a small dairy in Ohio before moving out to western Kansas and taking the job with MasCow. She said in her experience there are opportunities and challenges with both large and small operations and each plays a part in the milk supply.

But, for Ag Oasis and the MasCow Dairy, “more cows” means more opportunities to make a better product for consumers.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807 or by email at jlatzke@hpj.com.

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