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Crave brothers bring heifers home in massive building project

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 20 July 2009

The addition of a manure digester at Crave Brothers Farm made the dairy a little greener in more ways than one.

In the past three years the farm has undergone massive infrastructure changes that will be completed this month. In addition to the digester, they’ve added a new lagoon, two freestall barns for milking cows, four heifer barns, a dry cow barn, a machine shed and shop and a farm office. Keeping with the farm’s signature colors, the number of white barns and green roofs at this dairy has more than doubled.

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“It took a pretty big sheet of paper to get this one figured out,” Charles Crave says.

He and his brother George started farming with partner Professor David Wieckert in 1978, renting a farm near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, and buying 70 cows and youngstock. Their brother Thomas joined the partnership in 1980, and the brothers bought their current farm at Waterloo, Wisconsin, where youngest brother Mark joined the operation in 1988. Then, the herd size was around 100 cows, which was a good size at that time, Mark says.

Shortly thereafter, the brothers decided to build one of the first modern freestall barns for 400 cows. In 1995, they added the milking parlor.

“We built in stages that are manageable and eventually profitable,” Charles says.

The most recent additions will grow the farm to 1,200 Holstein cows, 900 youngstock and 1,800 owned and rented acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

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Today, Charles, Thomas and Mark manage the dairy farm. Charles oversees the bookkeeping and feeding. Thomas manages the machinery and cropping, and Mark is in charge of the herd, youngstock and milk quality.

George, a licensed cheesemaker, manages the farm’s cheese factory that was constructed in 2001 to produce specialty cheeses from the farm’s own milk. The cheese factory also underwent a major construction phase this past year, more than doubling in size to handle the increasing demand.

With a growing market for their milk through their specialty cheese line, buildings in need of upgrades and difficulties managing heifers offsite, the Crave brothers decided it was time to take the next step with the farm.

In 2006, they underwent the CAFO permitting process. It only took six months to obtain a permit, which was tight, Mark says. The key was to work with the system and plan and build the facilities in a manner consistent with what the officials wanted.

“The best way is to build new and abandon the old,” he says. “We were well-suited as we didn’t want to maintain any of the old facilities.” The massive construction process started with adding the new 10-million-gallon lagoon, methane digester, storage for the manure solids and the first heifer barn.

Clear Horizons, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based company, bankrolled and built the $2 million digester, which was instrumental in expanding the farming operation. By adding the digester, it saves the farm from needing an additional 700 acres for spreading manure from the growing herd.

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With the digester in place, the brothers then added two cow barns and tore down the old shop, which was no longer in a convenient location on the farm. Three more heifer barns and a dry cow barn were built along with a new shop, farm office and whey building.

Heat is captured from the digester’s engine to warm the manure in the winter and also used for nursery water, the machine shop, farm office and whey tank.

“It was tough from a dairy standpoint to envision three years out how you want the farm to look. It really is a mind-bender,” Mark says.

The cow barns were modeled after their original slotted-floor freestall. The new barns also have a vinyl ceiling and chimneys to promote good air flow, misters and fans for heat abatement and shorter freestalls to keep the cows drier.

The Craves looked to other dairy operations when it came to building their heifer facilities. Simply calling other dairymen and getting in the car to go look was how they did their research. In the end, they took all the ideas and built what best suited their needs. “It helps to have four of us always looking for ideas,” Mark says.

Alongside each freestall heifer barn, the Crave brothers put in a grass strip to capture rainwater from the roof. By doing so they won’t dilute the manure in the nearby feed lanes.

The heifer barns house young heifers up to breeding age and dry cows. These barns are scraped to move the manure to the pumping station where it will be sent to the digester. The heifer manure and manure from hospital barn boxstalls will go through a chopping system, then whey from the on-farm cheese plant will be added to create a slurry suitable for the digester.

New bunker silos were built with 16-inch-thick sidewalls so that one day they could support a roof to prevent runoff leachate.

The new shop is 70 feet by 208 feet. It has a confined area for chemical storage, a wash bay, an insulated and heated work area, conference room and break room.

Planning the actual facilities was the easy part, Mark says. Determining who will work it and who will manage it was more difficult. They are still working to fully develop their new standard operating procedures for the newer, simplified farming operation.

As the herd manager, Mark was charged with sizing the herd and envisioning cattle numbers. This specific calculation was done on a piece of scratch paper that still hangs on his office wall.

According to Mark, their stocking plan was to ratchet down culling to be able to populate as they were ready. “We met our cow numbers,” he says. “We exceeded our goals in culling (maintaining a 20 percent cull rate), but fell short with the heifers.”

They projected a 30 percent growth with their heifer numbers and tried using sexed semen to fulfill that goal. However, with heifers raised off the farm at neighboring locations they were more difficult to manage and did not see the success rate that was anticipated. With heifers now in their new on-farm facilities, sexed semen is being used again in all first- and second-service breedings.

In the 30-year existence of the farm, the brothers always knew they wanted to have the complete farm on site. However, to do so they had to carefully think through all of the steps and budget accordingly.

With four families involved in the farming operation, the Craves want to build and maintain enough capital and equity so there is opportunity upon retirement.

“We were not economically sustainable where we were at, but we managed it,” Mark says.

It took a certain amount of skill to leverage as much as possible for the recent building projects.

“We knew we had to maintain production per cow. We didn’t have room to dig ourselves out. So far we’ve been able to do that,” Mark says. “I’m very pleased with a 20 percent cull rate and maintaining production. We set a production number and never took our eye off of that.”

The Craves also never took their eye off the timeline. Just after initiating the building plans, the farm was selected as the host site for the 2009 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, the state’s largest outdoor farm show.

“Hosting the Farm Technology Days show kept our feet to the fire,” says Mark, who along with the family will welcome thousands of visitors to their farm July 21-23.

Knowing they had to have the farm in tip-top shape this July, the Craves built more into the budget than what they may have otherwise. Excavating and landscaping were added as capital expenses. Typically they would have done those tasks themselves, Mark says, but it would have left them cash flow tight.

“We did a better job budgeting for completion,” he says. “In the long run we will all be a lot happier.” PD

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