Ocheda Dairy completes expansion project
WORTHINGTON -- Ponder, for a moment, the cheese that comes perched atop your Big Mac or Whopper, depending on personal preference for McDonald's or Burger King. It's a good possibility that the milk that goes into creating that ooey-gooey yellow slice of goodness came from cows that live on the outskirts of Worthington.
Just south of the city, on Nobles County 57, lies Ocheda Dairy, an enterprise owned and operated by the Vander Kooi family -- Dave Vander Kooi and son Joe Vander Kooi. A facility expansion project completed in 2008 gave the Vander Koois the ability to milk up to 900 cows daily, although they currently milk 750 -- five years ago it was 550.
"We started it about a year ago, in the late fall, and finished in June of '08," explained Dave Vander Kooi during a short tour of the expanded operation. "We've been slowly building our own herd to build the numbers."
The Vander Kooi operation has indeed come a long way, especially considering how Dave got his start in dairy.
"I started out with four cows as a freshman in high school as an FFA project," he recalled. "My ag teacher wanted me to go to college to be an ag teacher, but no, I wanted to farm. You gotta like what you do."
The new barn, an addition to the Ocheda Dairy complex, measures 208- by 320-foot -- 66,560 square feet -- and is filled with black-andwhite Holsteins, along with a few brown Swiss as far as the eye can see.
"It is tunnel-ventilated to keep the cows cooler," Dave explained. "There are these cool cells, and water drips through them .... It keeps it 10 to 15 degrees cooler inside than it is outside."
A large fan system circulates the cooler air throughout the facility, and low-hanging metal panels force it down to the animals' level.
"We also put in a sand flume lane to handle manure," Dave continued. "We use sand bedding -- recycled sand. It's best for the cows, because it stays clean and doesn't carry bacteria, so we have healthier cows. But it's a challenge to incorporate it into the rest of the system for manure handling. It's been around for about 10 years, but nobody's ever perfected it."
Dave describes the system as a "big pump that pumps water through a flume" that winds like a river, picking up and depositing clean sand along the way. The system can get plugged up, and the cold weather can exacerbate the problems, but the Ocheda Dairy staff is learning to deal with those challenges.
Another feature of the new building is a small pen for calves, heated through the flooring. Previously, the calves were kept off premises, and creating a home for them onsite was one of the motivations for the addition. Ocheda Dairy also has a separate, small parlor for cows that have recently given birth. They are kept separate until they're deemed 100 percent fit to return to the main population.
"It's a really important time, and they need extra care," Dave explained. "I take care of that part."
Among the main population, the expectant mothers are identified by a splotch of red paint; green signifies the cow is expected to be impregnated shortly. Red and green spots are visible throughout the facility.
The cows are milked three times a day and know the routine, shuffling in and out of the milking parlor in a steady flow.
"It's a double 16 parlor," Dave explained. "That's the factory end. One person can milk 650 cows in six hours."
But it takes more than one person to keep the operation running smoothly on a daily basis. In addition to Dave and Joe, Ocheda Dairy has two long-time employees, Bryan Voss and Cory Boehnke, and employs eight other laborers.
Next to the milking parlor is the storage facility, consisting of two 6,000-gallon chill tanks. A semi arrives daily and is filled with the raw milk -- each storage tank can fill a semi tank.
"We're a member of a large milk co-op, and most of the time, it goes to Paynesville, to a cheese plant, where it's made into big barrels of cheese," Dave detailed. "Then it's trucked to Portage, Wis., where they take the big barrels and cut and slice it into the slices that go into the burgers for McDonald's, Burger King. A lot of my milk ends up in those cheese slices."
The McDonald's contract is a relatively new venture for the coop, Dave stressed, and it came about because of an emphasis on quality and wanting to be able to trace the origin of food products back to the farm. An enzyme in the cheese is changed to make the McDonald's cheese taste differently than the Burger King cheese.
The Vander Koois plant 2,000 acres of corn and alfalfa to help sustain their herd, plus purchase feed -- to the tune of $900,000 last year, according to Dave. Ocheda Dairy also contributes to the local economy through its payroll and hefty repair bill for machinery and associated equipment, he added.
As the Ocheda Dairy operation grows bigger, so do the regulations and the amount of paperwork required by the government. The way food is produced and regulated has changed drastically since Dave got his start in the dairy business in the 1970s, but overall he's pleased with the changes and takes pride in his family's contribution to the food chain.
"It has improved the operation," Dave said about the new building and the benefits it brought to the operation. "This fall things ran very smoothly."