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California dairyman converts open lot to freestall barn

Sarah Jackson Published on 14 January 2009
Everyone has those fixer-upper projects in their operation that they would like to get finished one day. Sometimes those projects are just things you’ve put off getting around to; other times, they are necessary to-do items. For California dairy producer Bob Marchy of Ceres, California, his fixer-upper project was no small task. In 2002, he decided to convert his operation from open corrals to a confined freestall barn. The process was daunting even for Marchy, a seasoned dairy producer, but in the end, Marchy thought that it was worth it.

The decision to convert the operation was brought on by the severity of winter conditions in central California. The 700-cow Holstein operation is located near Modesto, California, and Marchy says the area receives more rainfall than other parts of the state.

“Winters are hard,” Marchy says. “(Converting to freestalls) is easier on the cows, for overall cow comfort and for milkers who get our cows into the parlor.” Before building, Marchy researched his options thoroughly, looking at 20 to 30 different freestall barns before making his choice.

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“We looked all over,” he says. “We talked to a lot of people. It really helped when we went to the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California. We put in a lot of research into how we wanted to do it.”

Marchy says his goal was to make everything easier on the cows and his crew. In order to achieve this goal, he spoke with everyone he could, including freestall experts, builders and university dairy specialists. From all the information, he put his own ideas together when creating what he wanted the barn to look like.

“Basically, the biggest thing for me was cow comfort,” Marchy says. “We tried to make the barn with plenty of room for the cows. Since they had been lying out in open areas, they were already used to having a lot of room. I wanted to make the barn as close to that environment as I could.”

After about a year of talking with others and gathering his own information, Marchy decided to purchase plaster mats from R-Tech, a Canadian company, as the base for his cow comfort plans.

“We decided to go that way because the cows couldn’t dig holes if we put in a manure bedding,” Marchy says.

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Marchy adds two inches of manure bedding on top of the mats, which he says lasts a week before needing refilling or replacement. The manure bedding is composted after being flushed out of the barn and separated. When it comes to cow comfort, bedding is a real issue in Marchy’s region of California, says Dennis Spurlock, a consultant with Western Cow Comfort, in Merced, California.

“We try to help producers alleviate that problem,” he said. Spurlock’s specialty fix is advising dairymen to do what Marchy did – convert from dry lots to freestalls.

And most important for customer satisfaction, Spurlock says, is the freestall mattress choice.

“What we’ve seen over the years is that there are two kinds of people: The ones who are happy with freestall mattresses and ones who aren’t,” Spurlock says.

Some dairy producers’ freestall mattresses in central California are 15 to 20 years old, he says, and that makes a difference to the cow. Spurlock, who consulted Marchy on his project, encourages producers to consider the cow when expanding, retrofitting or remodeling. And when freestalls are involved, he says, it’s especially important to focus on what it will take for cows to utilize a freestall, down to even something as simple as adjusting the height of a neck rail.

Evaluating cow comfort from every dimension of the stall is important, he says.

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“We provide producers with a lot of information. Once they look at it, they start looking at everything differently,” Spurlock says.

Building Marchy’s new barn was a fairly simple, non-intrusive process, according to Spurlock. Builders constructed the new facility on top of one of Marchy’s open lots.

“We didn’t have to disturb the milking or corral facility,” he said. “We just started building.”

The new freestall barn has eight separate pens with about 80 cows per pen. It was built 13 feet tall, 103 feet wide and 680 feet long.

Each freestall bed is 4 feet wide and 9 feet long. They also installed floor matting through out the barn and return lanes. The barn on the Marchy operation was completed in February 2005, the result of three years of planning, saving and building.

Because a new flush system and return lines had to be built, the entire barn cost $800,000 to construct. When it came time to move the cows into their new home, Marchy says most of the cows had a big adjustment to make.

“They weren’t used to freestalls,” he said. To solve this issue, Marchy moved only two milking strings into the new freestall barn each day.

He says older cows had the most difficult time adjusting to the new facility, but the younger cows adjusted really quickly.

“We knew that would happen going into it,” Marchy says. “The first few months were pretty tough. It was new. They were running and not worrying about eating and settling down. Once the cows got used to it, they started to adjust, and in six months things got back to normal.”

He says that now when he walks the pens there are only two to three cows not lying in a freestall.

Milk production for Marchy’s operation dipped a little during the transition, but he credits his strategy of moving only two strings at a time as the reason production was not affected even more. Since the move, Marchy says milk production has not increased a lot, but the operation has not seen the production losses during the harsh winter or summer months as it did before construction.

“It’s a lot cooler in the summer now,” Marchy says. “Before we just had shade over the cows. Now we have soakers on timers, a high-pitched roof and a flume that pulls air out.” The operation reuses most of its water, and Marchy says the new flush system uses as little fresh water as possible.

Sprinkler and washwater are regenerated, with lagoon water as a backup source. Marchy also attributes the new freestall barn for a decrease in culling.

“Winters were getting extreme for us. Our cull rate was outrageous. We had a 33 to 34 percent cull rate. Now we’re down to a 24 to 25 percent cull rate,” he says.

He adds that building the freestall barn was well worth the price. However, he cautions other producers to do their own research to find what type of barn will best fit with their individual operation. PD

Sarah Jackson is a freelance writer in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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