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The World of DFA Milk Haulers
Transporting America’s milk supply from farm to market is a complicated task requiring an immense fleet of trucks, experienced drivers, skillful scheduling and careful attention to detail. Largely unnoticed by consumers, milk haulers are as much a part of todays dairy farm as the veterinarian, the nutritionist, even the cows themselves.
Seven days a week, 365 days a year, employees of Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. direct the movement of approximately 3,500 truckloads of milk from dairy farms to processing plants. All across the United States, this effort requires a transportation network covering 48 states operating 24 hours a day.
Most of the trucks and drivers required to move the milk marketed by DFA are supplied and employed by independent contractors. In DFA’s Southeast Area alone, a network of 145 contract haulers delivers milk to 64 different customers. In other areas of the country, DFA Areas operate their own fleets of tanker trucks and drivers. DFA’s Mountain Area, for example, owns some 150 tractors and 300 bulk trailers used to transport the majority of its milk supply, but also relies on contract haulers in some areas.
The DFA transportation network also includes haulers contracted to move milk from areas with excess milk production to areas where regional production cannot keep pace with growing consumer demand. Grayson Robinson, Southeast area supervisor, notes that the Southeast Area relies year-round on milk shipped in from other parts of the country.
More than just drivers
The milk haulers who pull in to the farm each day are licensed, experienced drivers whose responsibilities extend well beyond collecting milk. Glenn Wallace, chief operating officer for DFA’s Mideast Area, explains:
“Milk haulers are a critical part of the marketing channel in the dairy business, with a myriad of responsibilities,” Wallace says. “In addition to adhering to the DOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) rules each time they arrive at the farm, the driver is responsible for taking a stick reading of the volume of milk in the bulk tank, which equates to a specific number of pounds of milk for that type of tank, and for making certain the milk is in the proper temperature range.
“Before they pull samples for component (butterfat, protein) testing, it’s their job to turn on the tank agitator to make certain the butterfat is in suspension,” Wallace adds. “We then ask them to take the samples out of the barn to visually inspect the color of the milk, and smell them to make sure there’s no off-odor, before they store the samples in an ice chest. And then, after the milk has been transferred to the tanker, it’s the driver’s responsibility to start the clean-in-place process to sanitize the farmer’s bulk tank.”
After sealing the tanker and recording the seal numbers, the hauler’s next stop is the
processing plant. Wallace says plants in the Mideast Area strive to get each tanker
unloaded within a two-hour window of the scheduled appointment time. The gross
weight of each truck is recorded as it enters, and the tare weight (the unloaded weight) recorded before it leaves. While they’re waiting for their tankers to be unloaded, cleaned, sanitized, and sealed with a wash tag, the drivers deliver the samples to a refrigerator in the receiving area, where they are collected by couriers for delivery to a central laboratory.
How the job has changed
For companies like Guenther and Sons Inc., a family-owned business and DFA partner that hauls milk within a three-hour radius of Cincinnati, Ohio, the national trend toward increasingly larger dairies has meant big changes in how they do business. Established in 1926 by “Grandpa Andy” Guenther, this Ross, Ohio-based company is today owned by the third generation of Guenthers – Jim, Steve, Glen and Gary – and by Jim’s son, Andy. Glen’s sons, Brent and Marcus, also are involved in driving and support roles.
“We’ve grown from milk cans to semis in the 81 years since our grandfather, Andy, began picking up cans of milk at family farms with a single truck,” says Gary Guenther, who performs the central dispatch function for the company and still drives a milk truck from time to time. “Today we have 31 full-time and part-time drivers who collect milk from 43 different dairy operations, and we deliver to as many as 25 fluid milk, cheese and yogurt plants.
“Our customer base has also changed,” Guenther says. “In the early 1980s, our company made pick-ups at 130 farms, which produced 10 straight truckloads of milk per day. Today, we’re still transporting about the same volume of milk, but our customers now range from traditional family dairy farms, where we may stop every other day to pick up an average of about 5,000 pounds of milk per stop, to large operations where we may fill anywhere from one to three trucks each day of the week.”
Besides visiting fewer farms, Guenther says he’s seen the milk hauler’s work change from being physically demanding to being more mentally challenging.
“The work of tomorrow is about being adapting to change and being flexible” Guenther comments.
The diversity of today’s dairy industry is equally evident in DFA’s Mountain Area,
reports Waylon Ballard, DFA route supervisor in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“We call on 140 Utah dairies that run the gamut from family farms to very large operations,” says Ballard, who supervises 32 drivers. “Our biggest dairy now produces about a half-million gallons of milk a day, which means we’re sending in a tanker about every three hours. But we also collect milk from 20 or 30 family-sized dairy farms, where we may only make a pick-up every other day.”
Consumer demand and biosecurity change landscape
One of the latest changes in the world of milk haulers has been the rapid increase in consumer demand for rbST-free milk and its effect on milk collection schedules.
“In less than a year, three out of the four fluid milk plants we deliver to in Salt Lake City have indicated that they will no longer accept rbST, which has created extra routes and increased the drive time for our drivers,” Ballard explains. “Now we may have a truck picking up milk produced with rbST at one farm, and another collecting rbST-free milk at a farm practically across the road.”
“Probably the biggest recent change we’ve seen has been the increase in rbST-free milk,” agrees Guenther. “Two years ago, the majority of the milk we hauled came from cows receiving rbST. Now about 75 percent of the milk in our trucks comes from farms that have signed affidavits stating that they are not using rbST.”
Strict biosecurity measures also have brought change to the milk hauling business. Guenther says each of his company’s drivers is now required to affix tanker seals on the manhole covers at the top of each truck, and at the cabinet at the back that contains the hoses and valves, with each seal number documented by the driver.
“Biosecurity has become a big part of our drivers’ responsibilities,” Ballard adds. “Our supertanker drivers are required to install and record the numbers of anywhere from 15 to 18 security seals on their tanks. And if they miss installing or recording just one of those seals, it means the entire load is rejected at the processing plant.”
The challenges of staying on schedule
Adverse weather, mechanical breakdowns and traffic tie-ups are among the most common challenges that milk haulers face in their daily battle to maintain their milk collection schedule at each farm, and to meet their delivery schedules at dairy processing plants.
“It can be a challenge to stay on schedule in bad weather, but I can honestly say the weather hasn’t stopped me in the 28 years I’ve been driving a milk truck,” says Dennis Deal, who owns and operates a hauling company called Milk in Motion in Savannah, Missouri. “I pick up milk from 22 dairy farmers in northwest Missouri, and they’re real good about keeping their drives cleaned out. I owe it to my producers to show up on schedule, so I just chain up and go.”
Deal, who currently operates a single semi with a 6,500-gallon tanker, says the long hours also can be a challenge. He normally spends 11 hours a day behind the wheel, seven days a week, collecting milk from dairy farms between St. Joseph, Missouri and the Iowa border, and delivering it to a processing plant in Kansas City
“Mountainous terrain and winter weather are probably our biggest challenges,” says Ballard. “One of our routes goes over 8,000-foot-high Daniel’s Pass, and when there’s a heavy snow, it takes an experienced driver to know when and how to chain a supertanker to make it up those steep grades. We’re fortunate to have understanding producers who know what it takes to navigate those passes in the winter.”
“It’s not so much the snow as the ice storms that cause our biggest winter problem,” says Guenther. “If our semis start having problems on hilly terrain when the roads are icy, we can usually maintain our schedule by switching to our straight-axle trucks.
“Road and highway construction also can be a problem … last year several main arteries were rerouted through detours. And any time you’re in the transportation business, there are going to be mechanical breakdowns. Not long ago one of our newest trucks had a warrantee failure, and we spent an entire night making repairs to get it back on the road. Fortunately, we maintain extra trucks in our fleet, so if we do have a breakdown, we can replace it with one of the extra trucks.”
Remote areas with spotty or poor cell phone service can pose a challenge if a truck breaks down or cannot navigate a snowy mountain pass. “We solved that problem last year by installing Zonar GPS systems in all our trucks,” Ballard explains. “I can now locate any truck in our fleet from any computer, which means I can let a dairy or fluid milk plant know where a truck is at any time, and it helps me get assistance to a driver in an emergency.”
Friendships forged on the farm
In addition to helping bring dairy goodness from the farm to the dinner table, milk haulers and DFA members often become close friends, and attend social gatherings, graduations and family weddings together.
“My grandfather and my uncle milked in this area, so I grew up with some of my producers,” says Deal. “I played on the same football team in high school in Missouri with some of them, and I’ve watched their kids grow up. They’re like family to me.”
“Our milk is collected daily, so I probably see my driver more often than anyone except my wife, Jody,” says Kevin Waterman, a DFA member and fifth generation dairy producer from Forestville, New York.
“I, and my father before me, have been using Smith Family Milk Haulers since 1965. And we’ve become good friends with some of our drivers over the years. We’ve attended their kids’ graduations, and they’ve attended our kids’ graduations.”
Milking 70 cows, the Waterman Family Farm is located just 40 miles from Buffalo in western New York. It’s an area where the weather may bring rain, snow and sleet in the same day, and where haulers sometimes struggle to remain on schedule.
“Although our weather can be a big issue, I tell my drivers I don’t want them to kill themselves to get here,” says Waterman, who serves as a voting delegate for Region 9 in DFA’s Northeast Area. “Any time we get a new driver, I make sure I have their cell phone number. So if there is a problem, we can work it out.”
Hazardous weather conditions, muddy roads and driveways, and long hours in the dead of winter and heat of summer are all part of the job for America’s milk haulers. It’s a job that dairy farmers respect and appreciate.
“My driver is not only a friend, he’s the guy who helps deliver my milk check,” Waterman concludes. “It’s an important job, and I’m grateful for what he does for us.”