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Thinking of expanding your dairy? Keep these things in mind

James Bringe Published on 30 September 2015
blue dairy barn

Planning for expansion can feel overwhelming. Producers have to think through many decision points, including whether to retrofit or build new, what size to grow to and which milking equipment to choose.

It will never be an easy task, but keeping a few factors at the top of your mind could help you avoid limitations on performance and profitability in the future.



Consider the following factors, and you will be on the path to designing a facility that captures efficiencies in all areas of your operation.

When should I make a change?

A drop in your dairy’s key performance indicators, such as production per cow, somatic cell count or dry matter intake, is a red flag that something is wrong. Identifying what that “something” is can be much harder. Often, a number of small factors are contributing to the decline.

One such factor could be overstocking, which not only has ramifications for herd health but also puts stress on your human resources.

Even stocking at 110 or 120 percent could contribute to slower pen cleaning times, dirtier-than-normal animals and cumbersome group transitions. These can put stress on your people in addition to negatively affecting your operation’s key performance indicators.

If you’re planning to expand to solve performance issues, group size should be top-of-mind. No matter the size of the facility, if you’re milking three times per day, it’s good to plan for eight or nine groups. At about 45 minutes of milking time per group, that will leave you time to clean the parlor before the next shift.


If you have too many groups with too few cows per group, the person moving cows won’t have time to properly clean stall beds, alleyways, etc., before each group returns from the parlor.

If you have a small number of groups with a large number of cows, they could spend more than the industry-recommended 75 minutes maximum in the holding pen. Design to find the balance in group size so you can move the cows at an efficient pace while maintaining cow health and productivity.

What is the most important factor when re-sizing?

Return on labor investment tends to be important to most dairy producers. Getting the best return on labor requires good design and excellent financial evaluation. Consider partnering with a consultant or organization that will conduct an audit to help you eliminate inefficiencies.

One of the first decision points in an expansion is whether to remodel or build new. It is important to keep in mind that if the cost of renovation adds up to 70 percent or more of what it would cost to build new, it might not make good financial sense to remodel.

Along those same lines, dairy producers sometimes try to reduce costs by re-using equipment they already have. They might see more value in their equipment than is realistic because they paid good money for it. Seeking outside help in your financial analysis can take the emotion out of the process.

Don’t lose potential in the name of saving money. Remember, a profitable dairy is one that is labor- and energy-efficient, uses technology to strengthen performance, and focuses on cow comfort and health in all aspects of management.


What gets overlooked?

Good dairy producers know the value of special-needs, maternity and pre- and post-freshening areas. Unfortunately, they hesitate to invest because these pieces are often the most expensive to build. This facet of your operation deserves investment because it sets the stage for each lactation.

If you can’t immediately invest in building a special-needs area, consider designing it to help you accurately budget for future construction. If it’s designed up-front, you will be less likely to keep putting it off.

Ideally, one person should be able to manage this area. The design should maximize cow comfort and well-being before and after freshening. In this one area, you can get great returns in labor efficiency and measurable gains in production.

How long should technology last, and how does one keep up with changes?

Physical assets of an operation often have about a 20-year life cycle. Typically between years six and 10, components of that system might need to be updated. Be sure to design adequate space to access your technology so you can update or replace it as you see fit.

The speed at which producers upgrade or introduce new technology seems to be happening faster and faster. One reason for that could be our ability to communicate with our peers electronically and to access industry publications.

We see the implementation of new technology faster than ever before. It becomes easy to predict how it would improve our own systems and whether it would start to pay off within that ideal 36-month time frame.

If you are concerned about your ability to keep up, remember that technology is a means of collecting information. The implementation of that data is the key to your farm’s success.

The only way to get optimum performance out of technology is to have employees with the skill and desire to use data well. If you provide an environment in which your employees can perform to their best abilities, ask questions and make recommendations, you will make the most out of your technology.

Well-rounded designs lead to success

Don’t be discouraged if the thought of expanding your dairy feels overwhelming. Dairying is a complex business with many considerations. Remember to put equal thought into the factors that keep your cows comfortable, healthy and moving safely.

Seeking technological solutions in all facets of your facility can take stress off your cows and your people and result in good returns on your investments. Seeking a partner with experience in designing total solutions for your operation will put you on the path to success.  PD

PHOTO: Physical assets of an operation have about a 20-year life cycle. Typically between years six and 10, components of that system might need to be updated. Photo provided by GEA Farm Technologies.

James Bringe
  • James Bringe

  • Dairy Equipment Sales Consultant
  • GEA Farm Technologies
  • Email James Bringe