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1108 PD: Six expansion tips from Texas dairy engineers

Loretta Sorensen Published on 24 July 2008

Think about the cows. That’s some foundational advice Ted and Don Gribble of Five-G Consulting begin with when they counsel dairymen about expanding their facilities.

The Gribbles, with three generations of experience to draw on, help dairy producers focus on the physical layout of existing facilities or dairy sites, housing and feeding areas, traffic patterns, milking areas, manure clean-up, waste management systems, regulations, support animals and a variety of extra details that producers might overlook as they plan to build or expand a dairy.

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“Every farm and family has different characteristics,” Ted says. “You have to look at farm size, terrain, road access, water supply, existing buildings, financial conditions, family size, partners, goals, etc.”

A key message in Five-G’s presentations is the need for developing a thorough plan before anything else is done in regard to expanding or building a dairy facility. While plans may have to be adjusted during the actual building process, it will be easier to see how changes affect the entire process if a complete plan is in place.

“You shouldn’t expect to find the ‘perfect plan’ and try to force it to work on your farmstead,” Ted says. “Your facility should fit your exact situation and management style. Each project needs to be dealt with individually so resources and goals are successfully incorporated into the project.”

When producers consider the housing needs of their cows, the Gribbles warn that they should make sure they’re thinking of the needs of the cows first.

“Cows can withstand cold if they have dry bedding and reasonable protection from drafts,” Don says. “Summer heat is more of a concern than winter cold. Cows don’t sweat, so they depend on shade and their breathing to stay cool.”

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Producers need to consider which options – freestalls, loose housing, tie stalls or open corrals – best suit their management style and resources. Freestalls are popular because they allow for good manure control, adequate protection for each animal, labor efficiency and reasonable construction costs.

“In any case, the housing should be designed for the cows, provide protection from heat and accommodate the type of bedding you use,” Ted says.

Most new dairy feeding systems consist of simple bunks and self-unloading wagons or trucks that mix the feed. The systems are simple, can easily be backed up, handle most types of feed, provide good control over feed ingredients and allow producers to transport the feed to different feeding points on the farm. Headlock stanchions can be useful in managing cows, but they are not an absolute necessity.

Designing a workable cow traffic pattern is essential to the success of a dairy and can be accomplished through the use of six principles:

1. Keep the design simple so cows can learn the routine.

2. Keep cow, people and vehicle traffic separated as much as possible.

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3. Utilize numerous man-passes so people can filter through the lanes and pens without opening all the gates.

4. When possible, incorporate one-way lanes where cows return from milking to housing/feeding areas via routes other than the entry lanes.

5. As much as possible, utilize flush cleaning so tractors or scrapers don’t have to go into cow traffic areas. Train the cows to move without “herding.”

6. Train the people to allow the cows to move at their own pace.

Because the milking parlor is the centerpiece of a dairy barn, the right combination of equipment, facilities and materials to fit a dairyman’s exact needs should be incorporated into an expansion or building plan. An efficient parlor should allow for future growth, allow the degree of cow comfort owners want and be labor-efficient and compatible with state-of-the-art equipment.

“You may be tempted to skimp on the equipment in the milking parlor,” Ted says. “But don’t. Your investment will be recovered quickly in better, more efficient cow care, stress reduction and labor savings. And be sure you install the parlor and milking system exactly as the supplier recommends.”

While using manure as crop fertilizer is still a good practice, new uses for manure include generating methane gas or alcohol, reuse as a feed supplement, producing synthetic lubricating oils, producing insulating wall panels and composting into mulch.

“There’s a significant trend to reuse separated manure solids as bedding in freestalls,” Don says. “It can be very suitable bedding material, but it has to be handled properly. It does provide an unlimited supply of bedding that doesn’t have to be purchased or transported.”

Other manure clean-up systems available to dairy producers include dual twin-screen static separators, which have no moving parts and remove extremely fine solids from a waste stream. A screw press separator offers an excellent dewatering strategy by gradually increasing pressure as slurry is forced through a cylindrical, perforated screen. Static screen separation combined with extended stacking capabilities can promote extra dryness while eliminating the need for tower mounting. In northern climates, protection from the elements may be required for the separator, or, in extreme cases, for the solids stack. Aerators saturate containment ponds with oxygen by aggressively injecting air into the system, which maximizes the aerobic zone for the most efficient bacterial treatment. Mixers serve a similar function and are generally more energy efficient; however, they are also slower and as a rule create a smaller aerobic zone.

Reclaimed solids have little odor compared to raw manure and are easily handled with a front-end loader. They are about the consistency of silage.

The most prevalent clean-up systems used in dairies today are flush and scraping. The most labor- efficient and easy to maintain is the flush clean-up. With a flush system, an entire dairy facility can be cleaned in just a few minutes a day. There is very little that can go wrong with a flush system.

Flush dairies in cold climates have to provide for weather conditions by using curtains, insulation, supplemental heat or convert to tractor scraping for short periods. A flush system can be utilized any time that the temperature inside the dairy barn is 23 degrees or higher so the water drains away before it freezes. The temperature inside a properly designed barn will run 10 to 20 degrees warmer than air temperatures outside the barn. In the continental U.S., there is an average of about 15 days per year when temperatures are so cold that the flush system can’t be used.

The primary requirement for proper operation of a flush system is slope. The system can be set up to work with gravity or a pump. There are a number of ways to handle the waste with a flush system. Ponds with whole manure are a problem to clean out and spread on cropland. Scrape operations employ expensive and complicated equipment, which is frequently dedicated to manure handling. It’s labor intensive and an unpleasant task for anyone on the dairy farm. With a flushing and separation system, any type of conventional irrigation equipment can be utilized for application to cropland.

Laws regulating dairies vary somewhat from state to state; however, Grade A sanitation requirements are fairly standard across the U.S. You must contain and utilize animal waste on your own property. Becoming acquainted with local authorities and keeping the residents who live around your facility site informed about your plans helps avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Some of the details dairy producers may overlook in their plan include computers, feed storage areas and new and future developments.

“Computers and dairy cows were made for each other,” Ted says. “As dairy operations get bigger and bigger, the dairyman loses contact with his cows. The 30 cows in our Oregon dairy all had names. We knew every detail about our cows. Producers today must depend on milkers, herdsmen, cow hustlers and feeders to help maintain cow contact. Computers help producers manage by exception, by letting producers monitor general health and performance at a glance.”

Feed areas need to be in a convenient location and provide adequate space for the feed. Consider overall traffic patterns and access for delivery. During planning stages, consider if a commodity barn is a necessity or if upright bins with augers will be sufficient.

Developments on the horizon include widespread utilization of computers, time-coordinated milking routines, reclamation of more byproducts from waste and robotics. Planning ahead to incorporate these kinds of features at a future date is an important consideration in an expansion project.

“No matter what kind of design you use for your dairy, always remember to design for the cows, not the people,” Ted says. “You probably don’t need to hire psychologists or award-winning architects for your cows, but it is a good idea to hire specialized, experienced consultants before spending big money on new housing.” PD

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