LIKE EVERYONE operating within the dairy industry, Jack Durbin, owner of Givens and Houchin Inc, knows there are few days off for a carrier transporting milk. Dairy cattle don't take vacations from producing milk, so it behooves trucking companies to accommodate them.
“There are no weekends — there are no holidays,” says the Leitchfield, Kentucky, milk transporter and crop farmer.
All of this means that constantly transporting milk from the farm to the processor takes the coordination of both milk hauler and dairy farmer to ensure the product's purity.
With the just-in-time transportation required in handling a perishable product, Durbin is pleased to have the well-run Robey Farms in Adairville, Kentucky, in his service area.
Some people unfamiliar with farms today may think that getting milk to market hasn't changed much through the years. Durbin begs to differ and points to the high-production Robey Farms operation. The 5,000-acre farm is run by Lee Robey and his family who oversee about 1,000 Holstein cattle that are milked on a three-times-a-day schedule.
With 24-million pounds of milk produced annually, the farm requires equipment that expedites shipments to dairy processors — as well as a carrier that can meet the challenge, says Robey.
Robey and Durbin put their heads together and worked out an arrangement that suits both the farm requirements and utilizes Durbin's tank trailers efficiently.
Their design includes a building that houses a foodgrade utility room for piping, pumps, and a 6,500-gallon storage tank, all for transferring milk from cows to tank trailers.
Durbin can have a driver drop a tank trailer at the barn to await loading and then return later when it is loaded to transport the product to a processor. Kentucky regulations allow the milk to be properly stored for 48 hours between farm and processor, Durbin says.
Because of the amount of milk produced on the Robey farm, the owners are setting up a system in which piping will bypass the holding tank, allowing milk to be pumped directly from the cows to a tank trailer loading at one of four windows in the facility.
“We expect this arrangement to reduce the loading time significantly,” says Durbin.
Durbin's trailers also complements his operation by providing more storage space for the milk that is being rapidly produced, says Robey.
In addition, Bobby Etheridge, a Givens and Houchin driver, says he likes the expansive driveway, loading, and turnaround area available at the farm — a change from smaller or older operations with driveways that often require backing onto a highway or other extensive maneuvering.
Although the Robey farm is one of the most modern milk producing operations in the Givens and Houchin network, it is only one of about 200 farms served. The carrier hauls about 325 million pounds of milk per year, averaging about 1.2 million pounds per day in peak production.
Transportation is dedicated to farm pick-up and then delivery to milk processors in a territory that covers central Kentucky and north central Tennessee.
About 50% of the milk volume is hauled for Lone Star Milk Producers and the other 50% is handled by Dairy Marketing Service, an arm of Dairy Farmers of America.
With a fleet of 30 tank trailers from Blue Grass Tank and Equipment and Walker Stainless and Equipment and 30 Freightliner tractors, the carrier has three dispatching locations in Kentucky: Glasco, Franklin, and Leitchfield.
“Most of the drivers park the tractor-trailer rigs at their homes when they finish their routes,” Durbin says. “In addition to the convenience, we like the security it provides with the driver nearby.”
While Durbin began as a dairy and crop farmer, he later decided to begin transporting milk when the market appeared tempting.
“It's hard for small farms to stay in business,” says Durbin. “When I first started in the dairy business, it had been good for several years. Farms were a lot more localized than they are now. Basically back then, the ones I knew were located in a 30-to-40-mile radius of Leitchfield. There were about 48-50 milk producers, and now there are only seven in that same area. However, today there's more milk produced because the dairymen who have stayed in business are milking more cows.”
“We have expanded in the last 14 years,” he says. “Our growth has been by almost 100% buyout of other milk haulers, their equipment, and their routes.”
The milk hauling was actually begun by Durbin's uncle, Sim Houchin, in 1950 when milk was transported in metal cans. By 1960, his uncle had converted to tank trailers. A partner, Charles Givens, also was involved in the operation, which explains the company name of Givens and Houchin.
In 1991, Durbin bought Givens' share of the company and in 2000, his uncle retired.
Seeing the possibilities in the industry, a local banker, Lindell Sharp, joined the concern as Durbin's partner and manages accounting, taxes, and other back office activities.
The milk hauling side of the business is coupled with Durbin's 1,200-acre farm that produces crops of corn, soybean, and alfalfa. Add a dairy barn with 300 Holsteins and 40 Brown Swiss that require twice-a-day milking and it's no surprise that Durbin gets little sleep.
After trying several methods for acquiring vehicles, Durbin settled on purchasing previously-owned Freightliners from Penske Truck Leasing. Tractors typically are equipped with 470-horsepower Detroit Diesel engines and 10-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions.
“I've been very pleased with the Detroit Diesel engines,” Durbin says. “They've been almost maintenance-free and they get good fuel mileage — about 1.7 mph better than the previous engines we've used. That's really important because of all the stops and starts our rural routes entail.”
Newest tank trailers are from Blue Grass Tank and Equipment Co and have a 7,500-gallon capacity. They are outfitted with L C Thomsen valves, Betts domelids, and Jabsco foodgrade pumps.
When the business was first started, maintenance was performed at a company shop. But when the lead mechanic retired, Durbin decided to outsource the work.
“Clark Detroit Diesel-Allison in Louisville handles all of our engine maintenance,” Durbin says. “They give really good customer service.”
As for running a trucking company in today's business environment, Durbin says fuel and insurance price hikes continue to be a challenge.
Added to cost problems are driver shortages. “We never get to where we want to be — about 85% of our 36 drivers are long-term employees and enjoy the job,” he says. “It just seems that there is always that 15% turnover.”
Because of the 24/7 requirements for hauling milk, Durbin increases driver pay for work on weekends and holidays to encourage retention.
As for the future, he is anticipating more growth for the company. “We will have to grow some to be profitable. In the past, we've been proactive about approaching other milk haulers to buy their business, but I think now we will proceed at a slower pace where acquisitions are concerned.
“My family always prided itself on service, so we need to grow at a rate so that we can continue that reputation.”