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Robotics, energy efficiency, cow comfort top building trends

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 06 November 2015
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There is growing interest in robotics and automation, energy efficiencies and improvements in cow comfort among dairy producers across the country, according to three contractors who specialize in dairy buildings. 

The West, Midwest and Northeast regions are represented in this roundtable, which touches on trends and innovations related to calf, heifer and cow facilities, as well as milking centers. Progressive Dairyman caught up with Mike Bingham, Duane Ambrosius and Arnie Shantal to find out what kind of dairy building projects are underway in their necks of the woods.

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WEST
Mike Bingham
Westec, Inc.
Project manager
Jerome, Idaho

1. What trends are you seeing related to the following: 

Calf facilities

The most common types of calf facilities we see are an open-lot design with a shade down the middle and some that are all concrete with a shade in back. Pen size varies, but post-weaned calves are often kept in smaller groups. They are designed to be easy to clean and move cattle through.

Heifer facilities

By and large, most heifer facilities are open lots with lockups and no shade. However, we have a couple of customers putting in freestalls for heifers. This is because they had built new freestall facilities for cows and kept heifers in them temporarily until they were full. These customers have seen benefits of freestalls for heifers, including less feed intake in winter because they are not eating as much to stay warm. With that, their feed costs go down.

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Cow facilities

We see about 50 percent open lots and 50 percent freestall facilities for cow housing. I think the trend depends on the individual dairymen. Some will only build freestalls, while others will only build open lots. One of the new facilities we built was an open lot with shade, while other costumers on existing dairies with open lots are putting in shades.

Most of those who have freestalls allow access to corrals when the weather is nice and not wet. Most of these also have fans down through the building, some with feedline soakers. I think cow comfort is still a big item; dairymen analyze it based on their return on investment.

Milking centers

In our area, there seems to be a greater trend toward rotary parlors. A few years ago, there were only two or three in the Magic Valley [Idaho’s most concentrated dairy region]; now, there are seven or so. We are building one now and have another contract on a new one. It comes down to efficiency and labor.

Three of the new rotaries are going in on existing dairies, including one that is consolidating cows from multiple dairies to one location. Before, we almost always built parallel parlors, but I think the trend will be 50-50. We just built a double-60 earlier this year, and we have other customers that will do parallels next year.

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2. What are a couple examples of newer, innovative ideas you have seen in dairy buildings so far in 2015?

We are seeing more interest in robotics, like for pre- and post-dipping. They are getting faster, more consistent and guarantee a percentage of cows that they will dip. I think the payback is typically in the four- to five-year range with maintenance contracts.

I am seeing a trend for energy efficiency on dairies. LED lighting is definitely a trend, along with hot water heating systems. The expected payback on these is in the four- to five-year range. I also see more emphasis now on cow comfort through ventilation. Some milking facilities are being mechanically instead of naturally ventilated, which helps to maintain air quality and temperature and keep cows cool.

3. What do you expect to see in 2016?

I believe we will continue to see operators trying to become more efficient and helping their cows in the milking process or through new facilities (freestalls, corrals); depending on milk prices, we will see some expansion. In our area, we see fewer new, big facilities; rather, we see more little expansions taking place here or there if they are permitted to do so.

Some are modifying what they are doing and becoming more efficient and doing things that are good for the cow and can save labor. The labor situation here is tough. The unemployment rate is low, and it is hard to find good, hard-working people.  Cooling off

Midwest
Duane Ambrosius
Bayland Buildings, Inc.
Agriculture sales manager/consulting specialist
Green Bay, Wisconsin

1. What trends are you seeing related to the following:

Calf facilities

The trend that I am noticing for calf facilities seems to be more and more people leaning toward group feeding. Another trend that producers are really leaning on are the quality ventilation systems within the calf barns. This includes automated curtain systems and tube ventilation systems.

Heifer facilities

The biggest trend I am seeing in heifer facilities at this time is the focus on foot health by using a force flow through the footbaths with new designs for easy movement. By doing this, you have the ability to limit the amount of solution you are using while indirectly forcing the heifer to be treated effectively.

Cow facilities

Ventilation has always been viewed as an essential part of the cow comfort process. More recently, we are noticing that producers are putting a stronger focus on automated-power ventilation systems. The advantage of the automated-power ventilation system, whether in a cross-ventilated or tunnel-ventilated barn, is a more consistent air flow which aids in higher cow comfort.

Milking centers

The trend that I am seeing when it comes to milking centers is robotics in general. Producers are eager and excited to see what the next big automated or robotic system will be that enters the market. The reason for this is because they have an ongoing struggle with available and reliable labor.

2. What are a couple examples of newer, innovative ideas you have seen in dairy buildings so far in 2015?

I am noticing producers are putting a bigger focus on energy efficiency. There is higher demand for larger, more energy-efficient fans going into dairy buildings. Producers are also paying extra attention to lighting. LED lighting is playing a big role in energy efficiency.

3. What do you expect to see in 2016?

I expect in 2016 to definitely see more interest in robotics. I truly believe robotics will forever be the biggest growing trend in agriculture. In addition, I would expect producers to be more conservative while putting additional planning into any future projects due to the uncertainty of milk, feed and labor costs in the agriculture industry.  stalls

Northeast
Arnie Shantal
ASAP Interiors LLC
Partner
Morrisville, New York

1. What trends are you seeing related to the following:

Calf facilities

Calf barns have changed a lot in the last few years. Producers used to use whatever old building they had on the farmstead to house youngstock, hence the reason for all the new technology we are using in calf facilities today, such as automatic feeders for efficiency.

Probably the biggest improvement has been on the ventilation side. We are using some innovative products such as a “whole-house” controller, which has the capability to control the entire ventilation system and lighting system from a smartphone. It has sensors to detect wind speed and direction, temperature and rain, and it makes the necessary adjustments.

For example, if the sensor detects rain on the west side of the building, it will close the curtains, or if the temperature hits a set threshold, the system will automatically adjust by closing curtains, slowing down tube fans or shutting off the ventilation fans. The important thing is to keep calves’ environment constant.

This same technology has been in the hog and poultry industry for years. If there is a system problem, you will be automatically alerted on your phone. Many of the new calf facilities are using radiant heat in the floors.

Heifer facilities

Heifer facilities have also made similar types of changes. We put a lot of emphasis on sizing the barn for the animals, for example, building the pens to get the right-size stall in and keep the group size the same as they moved into the pen, kind of like a social network.

Studies have shown they like to stay with their buddies, so we are building the barns to accommodate that. We are also employing the same ventilation systems as in calf barns. Animal comfort has also changed. Farmers used to say, “It’s just a heifer; she doesn’t need a mattress.” Those days are gone.

Cow facilities

Cow facilities are constantly evolving, with the biggest emphasis on cow comfort. We are now building 120-feet-wide, six-row barns, with the emphasis on the stall sizes. For example, we are building 10-feet-long stalls in outside rows, or 16- to 17-feet-long stalls in head-to-head rows. We are also employing the whole-house control concept in the cow barns as well to help with heat abatement and to control lighting for long-day lighting systems.

The same controller will do all of that. We also are installing more sprinkler systems to use in conjunction with ventilation fans. Another growing trend seems to be a four-row barn configuration for better natural ventilation and to get more feed space per animal.

Milking centers

Milking centers are constantly changing, but there is a big emphasis on cow flow. No matter if you have a rotary or a robot, getting cows back to feed as quickly as possible is a priority. Milking centers are constantly changing to be more efficient, such as the new robotic rotary. Heat abatement is also a big emphasis, designing for maximum natural ventilation and employing sprinklers and fans in the holding pen.

2. What are a couple examples of newer, innovative ideas you have seen in dairy buildings so far in 2015?

Four-row barns. Farmers are realizing the importance of the feed space, especially for special-needs cows. LED lighting seems to really have caught on. If you look at the power savings and longevity of these fixtures, these things really pencil out. When it comes to floors, the last couple of years we have seen the trend for the dairyman to spend the extra money on machine-cutting the grooves. I think concrete surface is probably the most overlooked thing when designing a new facility. We have tried many different wet grooving processes, but none come out nearly as well as machining in the grooves.

3. What do you expect to see in 2016?

I expect to see more changes in technology, such as energy efficiencies in lighting and fans. I expect to see even more emphasis put on animal comfort; we are now building these barns for the animals, not the farmers. Technology is ever-changing and so are our designs. Gone are the days of overcrowding a facility and using a machinery shed to stuff 50 animals in there just because it’s sitting empty.  PD

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