Farm Growth & Animal Welfare Go Hand-in-Hand

Published on Mon, 08/17/2015 - 5:06pm

By Maura Keller

Perhaps no other single issue stands out in a farmer’s mind more than the safety and well being of their animals and the food they produce. For many farm owners and operators, proper animal care procedures by their employees, clean facilities in which the animals are housed, and the adherence to animal welfare standards is paramount. Quite simply, the adherence, or lack thereof, to these issues can make or break a farm’s bottom line.

Just ask Ken McCarty, fourth generation co-owner of McCarty Family Farms, a 8,500-head dairy farm in Kansas and Nebraska. McCarty, along with his parents and brothers, have partnered with Praedium and Validus, to establish animal welfare monitoring and training protocols that will enhance the operating efficiency of the ever-growing McCarty Family Farms, while monitoring the progress and procedures around the family’s most valuable asset — their milking cows.


Growth Potential

Praedium, formerly the consulting department of Validus Ventures, is a privately owned company located in Urbandale, Iowa, works with farmers to ensure agriculture production practices meet or exceed consumer and brand expectations in the market place. While Praedium works across the agricultural spectrum: pork, egg, poultry, beef, dairy, feed mills, grain crops as well as animal welfare, worker care, and farm security, they also partner with family farms of all sizes to ensure their farming practices stay on the right track. And McCarty Family Farms is one such establishment.

Started in 1914 by Ken McCarty’s great grandfather, Taylor McCarty, the McCarty Family Farms is a fourth generation family dairy farm that has experienced tremendous growth in recent years.

The McCarty family milked 150 cows on their Pennsylvania farm until 1999 when they moved to northwest Kansas in order to expand the farming operations to accommodate Ken’s brothers returning to help oversee the farm’s operations.

“We began milking 800 cows in our original Kansas dairy, located in Rexford, Kansas in April 2000,” McCarty says. “We made the decision to grow steadily over the years from 800 milking cows on one farm to our current size of 8,500 milking cows on four farms.”

The McCartys expanded into their Bird City dairy in September 2008, their Scott City Dairy in November 2011, and further expanded the Rexford and Bird City dairies in 2011, and the most recent expansion of their Beaver City Dairy in July 2014.

In 2009, the McCarty Family Farm built a heifer raising facility at the Rexford Dairy that was designed to handle 3,500 head and in March 2012 they opened an on-farm evaporative condensing facility at the Rexford Dairy.

“Today, we primarily milk Holsteins and breed with only Holstein semen, although the handful of Brown Swiss we have are bred to Brown Swiss semen,” Ken McCarty says. “The farm’s team is comprised of 135 team members, including myself, my three brothers—Mike, Clay and David, as well as my parents, Tom and Judy.”


Animal Welfare

As part of their animal welfare initiatives, Praedium works with farmers to conduct risk assessments, and develop standard operating procedures in the areas of animal care and handling, worker care, on-farm security, product traceability and sustainability. In addition, the company offers animal care and handling training for animal caretakers.

McCarty Family Farms began utilizing the Validus third-party animal welfare audits in 2012 and continue to use them to this day. As McCarty explains, the rigorous audit process includes interviews with management, interviews with other team members, verification of SOPs, observations of records regarding animal health and well being, and a variety of animal and facility observations.

“The audit process itself can take over two days and we prepared for our first audit for well over a year,” McCarty says. “We continually update our protocols and our records throughout the year to keep pace with the Validus standards, but also with the changing demands of the public and our own internal animal welfare goals.”

While the McCartys plan to continue the use of the third party audits, they are also partnering with Praedium to initiate a remote monitoring system to continually evaluate their animal welfare procedures.

As McCarty explains, the remote monitoring is a random selection of video from a 24-hour period in the farm’s high priority areas — specifically areas where there is a greater likelihood of direct human and animal interaction and contact. The purpose of the videos is to record the ongoing interaction in order to highlight practices that could be improved, but also to highlight practices that are highly effective and impactful.

“The consulting piece from Praedium will entail a review of our protocols, either on site or remotely, and then monthly site visits to validate those protocols via records and visual observations, as well as to conduct trainings with our team members in specific areas such as hospital care, maternity care, and calf care,” McCarty says.

For many farmers, remote video monitoring offers them the ability to have a neutral third party evaluate and validate their farming practices, at random for a cost less than what they could do themselves.

“The video feed also allows us to not only correct deviations from protocol, but more importantly, highlight the positive things that happen on our farms at all hours of the day,” McCarty says. “This can be a tremendous training tool.”

McCarty has embraced the consulting component of animal welfare and feels that it is important to have experts in their respective fields do training with the farm’s team members in areas such as hoof health, reproduction, calving and calf care. He found those experts in the Praedium team, who helped McCarty and his family evaluate the pros and cons of going beyond the traditional welfare audits and integrate remote video monitoring into their farm operations.

“The Praedium team came with a fully detailed plan as to what these new programs would entail and were also open to any ideas or comments that we had,” McCarty says. “We are very excited about utilizing these programs to enhance our farms and improve the well being of our cows.”

Of course, having outside experts do periodic trainings accomplishes several things for the McCarty farm. First, it eliminates or reduces any possible conflict of interest when it comes to creating protocols and implementing best practices.

“And it gives our team members access to individuals who understand their particular field more so than my brothers or I,” McCarty says. “Finally, it allows for an outside individual with a ‘fresh set of eyes’ to evaluate our system, protocols, people and facilities, which we feel is very important for continuous improvement.”


Partners in Progress

Having solid and proper animal care management in place is paramount for any successful farm and McCarty understands this.

“We believe that the connection from farm to consumer will only deepen as time proceeds,” McCarty says. “As such, it is vitally important to make sure that our facilities, our practices and protocols, and our people are performing to the highest levels possible and that we are able to be good stewards of the dairy industry. From a personal level my brothers and I along with my parents and the vast majority of our team members have committed our lives to this business and to the belief that we can be better every day. To have those commitments and dreams and lives derailed due to lack of oversight would simply be irresponsible on our part. Implementing these programs helps us sleep better at night.”

Although he recognizes there will always be room for improvement, McCarty’s hope is that the video monitoring system will demonstrate that his farm’s practices are beyond reproach and are being implemented perfectly.

“My realistic hope is that this monitoring will highlight areas, practices and facility aspects on our farms that are creating bottlenecks and ultimately limiting or reducing human safety and well being, animal safety and well being, and finally limiting the productivity of both groups,” McCarty says. “My hope is that this system serves as a launching pad towards more rapid improvement on our farms.”