Last week the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) hosted three days of tours that traveled to nine of Wisconsin’s top dairies, all hitting at or near a 100-pound-per-day herd average. Agri-View was along for Day 2 of the tour, which stopped at three dairies utilizing recycled sand as bedding: Larson Acres in Evansville, Darlington Ridge Farms in Darlington and Majestic View Dairy in Lancaster.
The tour was led by Dr. Nigel Cook, cow comfort specialist and Clinical Associate Professor in Food Animal Production Medicine at UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. About 260 people participated in the tours, with farmers from Canada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin among the visiting group.
Larson Acres is a 2,900-cow dairy, operating 5,000-plus acres near Evansville. Eleven family members are involved in this operation that includes 62 employees. The farm, which has often been in the news regarding a livestock siting lawsuit that was decided in their favor last July by Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, went through an expansion in 2010 that doubled their livestock capacity, according to dairy manager Mike Larson.
Larson Acres grows nearly all its own feed, but they are located in the heart of some of the hardest hit areas of the drought. The 3,000 bushels of corn they chopped this fall averaged less than 20 bushels an acre, Larson shared with the group. They are in the midst of combining high-moisture corn and have found some 60 to 70-bushel corn – more than what they thought they would get, he said, but still only about a third of their usual crop. Though Larson said they have secured enough forage for their cattle, they are concerned with maintaining production due to low starch levels in the corn silage.
The farm operates two parlors – a double-22 Boumatic parallel (their original parlor) and a double-20 parlor. Although there are two parlors, the herd is handled as one, with cattle moving between groups depending on lactation stage. Fresh cows are milked last, with their milk going in a tank to be pasteurized and fed to their calves.
Their eight-row freestall barns are cross-ventilated and have three feed alleys. In building their facilities they were conscientious of avoiding “dead” spots or areas with poor air movement and poor ventilation. The walkway to the parlor is lined with fans. Cooling cells or pads are used to lower the barn’s air temperature an average of 8 to 17 degrees as needed. The litter alleys have 1 percent slope, but the rest of the barn is level.
According to Cook, the herd’s rolling herd average has gone up 2,000 pounds since building the new facility. In a naturally ventilated barn, he said cows often bunch together. In this cross-ventilated barn, cooled using water, by way of the cooling cells, the cows are spread out evenly. “One of the big strengths they’re getting out of this facility is that uniformity of light, uniformity of air flow, and the cows responding with more natural behavior during the summer,” Cook said.
The stalls in the freestall barn are on an 8-1/2-foot platform, with 50-inch-wide stalls in the new facility. Cook noted the stall measurement specifics – a breakdown he said that has worked well. The stalls utilize the Norbco single-beam mounting system. “The stand pipe attaching to that single beam is a 33-inch stand pipe, so that loop is 33 inches interior diameter. If we place the top edge of the lower bar of the loop 12 inches above the rear curb, then the neck rail usually ends up around 48 inches above the stall surface.” With this system, mounting supports are not concreted into the platform, offering flexibility in changing stall size if needed.
In any building project there are things that would be done differently in retrospect. For this facility, Cook said they would likely go with a 9-1/2-foot platform, giving the cow more lunging room with less impediment, and make the stall retaining wall 6 inches deep, rather than 3, to reduce sand movement.
With deep-sand-bedded stalls, Cook said getting neck rails placed properly is a challenge. “If you put them too far forward, the cows will stand diagonally across the stall with their feet in the sand. If you’re trying to keep your bed clean and cell counts down, you’ve got to put that neck rail in a place where the cows will step out of the stall.” He pointed out that placing neck rails so cows would step out to defecate, standing half in and half out of the stall, or “purposefully perching,” works best for sand management. “Not that that’s ideal for the cow, with her rear feet in the alleyway, but it’s ideal for management because we cannot deal with manure and urine landing in the sand bedding. That is a compromise we make with deep sand stalls to make the system work.”
The cross-ventilated barn’s fans are single-speed. Larson says they would consider variable-speed fans in retrospect, but when the facility was planned, variable-speed fans were not popular. The barn has two drovers lanes between each pen, which have been useful for moving cattle around.
Lighting is controlled in the freestall barn, with two to three footcandles shining on non-lactating cattle during the 9 a.m. tour visit. The lower lighting tricks the cows’ brains into thinking it’s still dark, Larson noted. Long-day lighting (18 hours of light, 6 hours of darkness) is used on the lactating herd. The opposite is used on the non-lactating herd.
There is both head-to-tail stalling and tail-to-tail stalling used in the freestall. Head-to-tail offers ease of moving cows and manure scraping, Cook pointed out. A disadvantage of head-to-tail is less space for water troughs. “We’re trying to shoot for at least 3-1/2 inches of trough perimeter per cow, and with only a single row of stalls you have a much smaller water trough.” More frequent cross-overs with waterers can address this issue.
Larson Acres utilizes a just-in-time calving system, where cows are moved from the close-up pen to an individual calving pen just prior to calving. The head-to-tail stalling makes it easier to observe the pen without disturbing cattle. “What I want to avoid is a system where the worker has to walk in the pen every hour – that’s just going to disturb cows and take more time,” Cook pointed out.
Larson said one of the last decisions they made in their expansion was choosing between individual or group calving pens on bedding packs, settling on individual pens for now. They have the ability to take down gates to change to a group calving pen in the future if needs change. Calf identity, which is important to Larsons, and sanitation are advantages to the individual calving pens. “It’s a clean, sanitized pen before the animal goes in,” Larson pointed out. One negative, he notes from his own observation, is possibly a slightly higher stillbirth percentage with individual pens due to nervousness in taking the cow away from her herdmates. Cows aren’t moved to the individual pens until feet or waterbag are observed. “We’re even waiting a little bit longer.” He said they may wait an extra 20 minutes, especially if the cow is laying down, to make sure she is fully dilated before moving her for calving. They also maintain two separate prefresh pens, one each for cows and heifers.
See next week’s Agri-View for a look at the tour stops at Darlington Ridge Farms and Majestic View Dairy.