For Kelly Cunningham, being a good neighbor means caring for his staff, his animals and his land.
Kelly and Christy Cunningham co-own and manage Milk Unlimited. The couple celebrated their 31st anniversary in May, and are now in their 21st year living and working at the dairy near Atlantic.
The Cunninghams co-founded Milk Unlimited in 1998. They milk almost 3,000 Holstein and cross-bred cows three times a day in a parallel-style parlor. Their team milks about 300 cows every hour and operates 24 hours a day. The farm produces almost 840,000 gallons of milk each month and they ship, on average, four tankers of product out of their dairy each day.
Along the way, the couple raised two children in a house just down the hill from the dairy.
“Our operation has changed a lot over the years — from the way we milk the cows to how our barns are set up,” Kelly said.
For example, originally they used sawdust for bedding, now they have transitioned to sand.
Another big change came in breeding decisions. For many years the Cunninghams only milked purebred Holsteins. Kelly said the crossbred cattle are more efficient and produce milk with higher butterfat/protein content — effectively the milk is more concentrated — making it more valuable when sold.
In all, it takes about two minutes for the milk to be harvested from each cow, cooled and pumped into a waiting tanker. This extremely fresh milk is then shipped out to the processors, primarily Associated Milk Producers Inc. in Sanborn, arriving within about four hours of milking.
For their efforts, the Cunninghams were honored by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig with a Wergin Good Farm Neighbor award June 4.
“The Cunningham family is a representative of Iowa’s milk and cheese industries,” said Naig. “Their involvement in their community, care for their animals and the good farming practices they have implemented on their farm makes them a deserving recipient of the Wergin Good Farm Neighbor Award.”
The news release from Naig continued: “Milk Unlimited prioritizes good animal care practices and focuses on caring for the land by implementing cover crops and innovative manure management plans. The family frequently hosts tours on their farm, often focusing on teaching students about the dairy industry. Kelly and Christy are active in various organizations in their community, and Kelly serves on the Midwest Dairy Board.”
Manure from the operation is used to fertilize the surrounding cornfields, and cover crops are used between growing seasons. The Cunninghams harvest corn for silage to be used in their feed plan.
Kelly is perhaps one the best qualified dairymen to know what to feed his herd — he holds a doctorate in dairy cattle nutrition from Purdue University.
“When I was finishing high school my mom said I had to go to college,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to be a dairy farmer all along, but she insisted I have a college background in case the dairy farming failed.”
He worked in dairy nutrition for many years, all the while saving up for his dream of owning his own dairy.
His desire not only to learn, but to educate the public, informs Kelly’s work with the community.
“Our population is so far removed from the farm. It’s sad how little people know about what we do here,” he said.
Milk Unlimited offers tours to local groups, everyone from elementary-aged children to red hat ladies, Kelly said. He believes this outreach is important to allow him to continue to do this job — to provide resources to a hungry public.
Kelly said he doesn’t think of Milk Unlimited simply as a family farm, although it is. Rather, he said it is a 15-family farm, where a livelihood has provided owners and workers alike, helping all of them raise families and build a better life.
“Iowa has a good milk market,” Cunningham said. “We have good schools for not only our children, but also for the children of our employees. That’s why we’re here, Iowa is the place for us.”