The last time we checked in with Tom Dugan of T&K Red River Dairy [Big Cheese, Performance Magazine, Spring 2012], the large Arizona dairy was milking 9,600 cows daily, representing more than 1,000,000 lbs. of milk off to market every 24 hours. The impressive size of the operation led to Dugan being featured on the cover of Performance standing in one of T&K’s barns with the words “Big Cheese” next to him. Unfortunately, the playful headline had unintended consequences for Dugan, who says that he was raised by his parents to be low key and modest about the family’s accomplishments.
“My parents are very much against any publicity, and then I’m on the cover, and it says Big Cheese across the front of it. I thought I was going to die,” recalls Dugan. “Since then, my nickname with my kids is Big Cheese. I mean, even the employees will call me Big Cheese when I come up.”
Not reported in the article at the time was the special relationship that MacDon has enjoyed with the Dugan family, who have generously made their alfalfa fields available to MacDon for product testing for almost two decades. The dairy, located less than an hour’s drive south of Phoenix, is perfect for this purpose thanks to its high feed requirements. Because each cow consumes about 110 lbs. of fresh and dry feed daily, T&K must cut large volumes of alfalfa each day, every day, without interruption, year round.
“We’ve been used to test MacDon equipment quite a bit just because of the non-stop cutting we do. I can remember early on one MacDon tech coming down here and thinking that it was totally messed up that you could be cutting hay in December and listening to Christmas music on the radio. But that’s our life in Arizona.”
The high cutting demands of the operation translates into a lot of hours placed on T&K’s fleet of MacDon windrowers; between 1,500 and 1,800 hours every year for each machine.
“We have some machines that have exceeded 7,000 hours and are still working.”
Not coincidentally, that kind of durability is in large part due to the many findings MacDon has made proving their equipment on Dugan’s land.
“MacDon also likes to test their machines here because we have very high silt content in our ground, meaning that we wear things out faster than a lot of other operations. In fact, a lot of the improvements that they made on their draper heads were the result of the testing that they did here cutting in our abrasive alfalfa.”
Since the 2012 story, the dairy has grown to 450 employees and a herd of approximately 13,000 cows, over 50 times the national herd average of 234 cows.
“In terms of size, we don’t measure ourselves; there’s always someone bigger. The farm right next to us has to be milking about the same as us. There are plenty of big operations out here.”
Beyond ongoing product testing, the Dugans has also played host to a few special MacDon events over the years, designed to allow MacDon dealers to invite their customers to Arizona to trial MacDon’s latest equipment in Dugan’s fields. The largest of these was MacDon’s Phoenix Adventure in 2002, which saw MacDon personnel from across North America make themselves home at T&K for an extended period.
“We ran two sessions a week, and I think that they ran six or eight sessions in total,” recollects Dugan. “I know that it was more than a month because, after a month, MacDon would fly in the wives of their employees working here.”
The gesture spoke volumes about the company to Dugan.
“The one thing that I was most amazed by was how MacDon took care of their people. They took care of the wives, not just the employees. Overall, I remember just being impressed by how happy every MacDon employee was working for MacDon. I didn’t see employees in our own company being that happy, and it just told me a lot about MacDon.”
Dugan says that a side benefit to playing host to events like the Phoenix Adventure, plus the frequent product testing, is many close friendships that he has formed with MacDon people over the years.
“It is a close relationship we have with MacDon. I became very good friends with Gene Fraser (MacDon, Vice President, Global Sales & Marketing) and would talk to him a couple of times a year. I also frequently got to see Gary and Scott MacDonald coming down to look at what was going on with the test equipment, things like that. The MacDonald brothers are very down to earth, and I always felt that I could have called any of them. You may not have gotten them immediately, but you would have got a call back.”
In 2012, around the time of the publishing of his story in Performance, Dugan says that he and his family were able to visit MacDon’s plant in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and what he saw only added to his favorable impression of the company.
“They continue to get ideas from somewhere, and they are always putting new things together. I mean, who would have thought about driving a swather backward?”
“Seeing the Winnipeg operation was very nice. It just gave me another understanding of how technological advancements happen at MacDon. They are a company that is always on the cutting edge of what they do.”
“They continue to get ideas from somewhere, and they are always putting new things together. I mean, who would have thought about driving a swather backward? And you come to find out that the idea was from the 60s or 70s when they had done some experimental stuff. But then they dug it back up and made it come to life.”
Going forward, Dugan says that he is more than happy to let MacDon continue to use his alfalfa fields for product development and dealer events, even though it sometimes means that the quality of the cutting may not be up to T&K’s usual standards.
“Some would say look at all of the feed that they cut for you, but if you have ever watched people who do not know how to drive swathers cut hay, it’s like watching salmon swimming upstream; not very pretty. But I always tell MacDon that the amount of hay that you can mess up is at most a day’s worth for us. If there is a problem, we just pick it up and deal with it.”
“The real reason we let them do it is more about the family thing, I guess. Even MacDon always asks, ‘what are you going to charge us to use your land?’ I’ve never charged for anything they have ever done. I do it because it is just so much fun to have them around. They have always made it enjoyable and made us feel part of the MacDon family.”