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The View from Here: Building conservation plans on farm family goals

Mike Gangwer Published on 23 May 2014
I am visiting a young dairy farmer today. He has purchased the farm, the equipment and the herd from an older gentleman who now lives in a rest home. With an engineer colleague, we are spending the middle of the day talking with the young man about conservation planning.

The dairyman and his wife have four children. The oldest is about 10, and the youngest is about 2. The two oldest have barn boots in the mud room and go to the barn to help their mother with the calves.

The dairy facility is typical of farms here. An older stanchion barn with an overhead stainless steel pipeline and a galvanized pipe vacuum line for the pulsators is built for 60 cows. The feed space is white tile and appears to be glass-like. The watering system is a long tray that is level-floated.

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The barn ceiling is whitewashed, and the lighting system is a series of bulbs every 15 feet or so. A radio plays in the background. There are four breeds here, and all but one of them is registered: Holsteins, Brown Swiss, Jersey and one crossbred.

The animal pedigree paper sits inside a plastic sheet and is tacked to the beam over each animal. There is a sawyard withers bar, each adjusted for the cow height, and each tail is snugly sitting in a plastic capsule tied to a slender rope hung from the ceiling.

The barn has a functioning barn cleaner. The cable chain slowly takes the manure to the end of the barn and wraps around a way point with the manure and bedding falling into a parked Gehl manure spreader. The barn is cleaned once per day.

The stalls have pillows filled with sawdust. The sawdust is replaced three or four times a year, and on top of the bedding pillow a slight layer of shavings is added to soak up some of the urine and feces that does not fall in the recessed gutter behind each cow.

The milk house is typical as well. An 800-gallon milk tank with opposite top-loading lids sits off to one side, while on the other is the sink and home to four milking machines and the pulsator units. In one corner is a myriad of chemicals and teat dip containers, while in another is the entryway into the barn office.

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Here, all kinds of papers and tools and small supplies live, cluttered to me – but no doubt the farm family knows where everything is. On the wall is an old calendar with a nice-looking Allis Chalmers tractor on it. It is the month of August 1978, and for some reason this month never got turned to the new one.

The heifers are raised outdoors and live in the woods. A circular feeder is next to one of the fences, and a round bale is emptied into it every three to four days. The calves are in portable wood and tin roof units that are mobile on two parallel six-by-sixes. There are swing gates in front of each of the six pens per unit; there are two of them here sitting next to the milking facility.

On this farm, most of the fields border the Delaware River. Corn silage, alfalfa and grass silage is grown without supplemental irrigation. All of these forages are put into an Ag Bag. The three ingredients are placed into a Keenan mixer wagon and blended. The wagon is backed into a large barn where round bales used to be stored.

The mixed ration is emptied into a silage cart and fed by hand to each cow. Yes, you read that right. From start to finish, the feeding operation is two hours, and this is done morning and night. The dairyman spends nearly twice as much time feeding as actually milking the cows.

My engineer colleague, Rick, and I are here today to update a conservation plan developed by another planner about two years ago. We are sitting in the kitchen at the family table with a pencil and an engineer computation sheet tablet (lines and grids for scale).

We are planning an outside exercise area for the cows that will include a feeding area. The feeding area will include a feedrail so the mixer wagon can empty the ration in front of the cows. What a huge relief from the hand-fed chore now.

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We have not talked out what time periods the cows will be in this area and how they will get back into the stanchion barn for milking. We are not talking about a freestall barn here, rather a concrete feeding pad that will be used every day of the year.

Unlike many of the dairy farmers here, this farm family chose not to graze their animals on pasture. The previous owner did. But with the crops now grown and stored in silage bags and mixed properly with grains, the per-cow production has increased significantly. He did not give a number to me but claimed it was enough to more than pay for the equipment and the Ag Bagger he now owns.

We are discussing the installation of a concrete-covered exercise pad so cows can be turned out of the stanchions for exercise and heat detection. We are thinking about where this pad will be and how to contain the manure without creating a resource concern.

And the concern is allowing manure to run off the pad (without curbing) and within a few hundred feet enter surface water. We will build a roof over the entire pad.

One question the landowner does not have worked out is if the dairy cows can be fed here, reducing the huge workload of using the feeding cart in the stanchion barn. This pad will not be a housing (freestall) barn, and the owner is not talking about building a milking parlor.

Another planning consideration is the replacement heifers. We are taking them out of the woods area, where there are spring seeps and several water courses in the pasture. They will be fenced out of the hydrologically sensitive areas, and for much of the year they will be in confinement.

I like to say and write that if we are given one hour of time, then 55 minutes is spent on the conceptual design of the plan, and the remaining five minutes is executing the plan. The U.S. military taught me the importance of this requirement: Spend a lot of time in the design phase. When done and done correctly, the execution phase is smoothly accomplished.

The relationship between the planner and the landowner is a progressive one. This is my second meeting with this dairyman and his family, so we are learning about each other. Much of this work is about listening, and at the same time, providing the best technical assistance possible.

Yet each farm is different and the solutions on one farm may not be the best solution on another farm, even if it is across the street. One common effort on all farms is addressing resource concerns and certainly not creating one as a second order effect from the installation of something new.

And we know fully that when we as planners and engineers and technicians leave the driveway, it is up to the landowner to operate, maintain and manage the implementation portion of the plan. In other words, execute the courses of action listed in the schedule of implementation.

This means, of course, that the plan must be built upon the farm family goals and objectives. If we fail anywhere, it is this step. And the outcome is a lot of wasted resources. This is unacceptable in today’s work environment, and the taxpayers demand a good return on every planning and program dollar we are responsible for in the USDA farm bill. PD

Mike gangwer

Mike Gangwer
Agricultural Scientist
USDA-NRCS

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