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Green Mountain Dairy: Manage for optimal cow comfort

Progressive Dairyman Field Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 27 September 2016
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When Brian and Bill Rowell built Green Mountain Dairy in 1999, they focused on cow comfort and efficiency. Since then, these brothers have won numerous awards for milk quality and reproduction, as well as Vermont Dairy of the Year in 2008.

Today, this predominately commercial Holstein dairy in Sheldon, Vermont, milks 950 cows and boasts an 84- to 86-pound rolling herd average. They shipped more than 27 million pounds of milk last year, which they received a quality award for, a testament to the brothers’ dedication to cow care and comfort.

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After all Bill says, “You don’t get that without recognizing the needs of the animal and having some appreciation for [their] comfort and the fact that the animal is your asset.”

Facilities built for today’s cow

“We tried to size things according to what science and experience has taught the industry,” Bill says. “In other words, cows today need more room than they used to need because cows are bigger today.

Cow comfort is of more importance because those animals are producing more than three times the amount of milk than they were when I was a kid, and you’re not going to park that big Holstein in some little space where you would’ve parked a Guernsey from 50 years ago.”

Stalls are lined with a fiber-filled mattress with bedding on top. This is cleaned and raked twice a day during milking and re-bedded twice a week. Bill says they’ve considered switching to sand-bedded stalls. However, since they already have separated solids from the dairy’s digester, they can’t really justify it economically. 

The barns that house the milk cows are designed with an overshot roof that pulls heat out of the building to keep the cows cool during summer months. During the long cold winters in northern Vermont, where it is often 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, keeping fresh air in the barns can be a challenge. For this reason, Brian oriented those barns and fans to be perpendicular with prevailing winds.

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cow using brushDuring winter months, this allows air to move in one end and out the other. It helps to maintain air quality, even when curtains are closed for long periods of time. If necessary, the doors can be opened on one end to improve air quality with fans during sub-zero temperatures.

Finally, rubber-lined flooring keeps the walkways more comfortable for the cows.

“If you look at the skeleton of a Holstein cow for example,” Bills says. “You see that its hooves and its legs are a bit small compared to what you would think would be needed to hold up an animal of that size. In order to reduce stress on feet and legs, our floors are lined with 0.75 inch-thick rubber mats.”

Managing people with the cow in mind

Before any new employee starts working with the cows, management first trains him or her on proper handling, animal care and the standards that employees are expected to follow. In addition, management informs current employees that the person is new and instructs them to help guide and train the new employee as he or she learns the job. 

Bill says most of the farm’s animal handling protocols are common sense things like go slow, keep your hands low and do not put a cow in a situation where she’s thinking flight is her best option. To help employees understand the cow’s viewpoint and reactions, they also teach them things like flight zone and how a cow sees differently than a person does.

It is important for anyone working with the herd to understand that animal comfort is key to production. Routine tasks should be viewed from the cow’s perspective. Cows should be comfortable in their environment and with those handling them; thus loud, excitable people are not welcome. 

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At least once an hour someone walks through the barns looking for sick, stressed or injured animals. Anything of concern is reported to the herdsman, who handles it from there and calls the vet if necessary.

In addition, they host mandatory clinics to reinforce proper handling techniques according to what leading research advises. Bill says this works as a great refresher for any longtime employees and really helps to round out training for any new employees.

Should an incident occur, employees report other employees to the supervising herdsman. There is a herdsman on each shift, and the herd manager is on the day shift, so there is always a supervisor and a chain of command to work through. If necessary, the herdsman will have a conversation with an employee if they are not following protocol, but ultimately the herd manager will determine the outcome.

The Rowells have several longtime employees: two in excess of 20 years and two others in excess of 30 years. After that many years of a working relationship with someone, he and Brian trust them, and find it is a pleasure to work with them. 

Managing cows with the cow in mind

From birth, they limit the number of changes an animal goes through at a given time to minimize the animal’s stress level. For instance, when weaned heifer calves move from the calf barn to the heifer barn, they are moved as a group.

cows feeding in barnThey are accustomed to wood shavings-bedded pack. By putting them in a pen similar to the ones in the calf barn, some things remain familiar. They experience only one major change at that point. He waits until they’re ready to move to the next pen in the heifer barn before switching them to recycled solids and freestalls. This helps the animals make a smoother transition.

The dairy makes sure animals at every stage have plenty of space and do not to exceed a 100 percent stocking density. This way, every cow has a bed and room at the feedbunk.

“You can crowd them some, but how much do you want to crowd them?” Bills says. “Why are you raising replacement animals, so that you can crowd your barns and come into the summer heat with barns that are congested?  There’s no animal comfort if there is no air in the barns, and gee, then you wonder why you’re having all sorts of problems. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

During milking, they push feed up so the cows go right to the feed bunk after milking instead of laying down. This gives the teat ends time to close, reducing the potential for mastitis.  

In addition, Bill and Brian work with nutritionists on a weekly basis.

“We work with three nutritionists on a weekly basis. Every Wednesday we work with nutritionists to put together a ration specific to the needs of each group of animals. Our animals are grouped according to their stage of pregnancy, stage of lactation or stage of maturity. Some people feed where, for the most part, every animal gets the same thing. That doesn’t work. We’re tailoring a diet specific to the needs of each group of animals. We’re walking a tightrope with the diet. You don’t want them to build fat. You don’t want them to strip fat off their back. You want to stay on that fine path so they’re getting what they need; no more, no less.”

Currently, Bill says he and Brian have no intention of growing any larger and are focusing on transitioning the farm to Brian’s children, Matthew and Megan. As they do so, they’re working to instill in them the same philosophies that have made Green Mountain Dairy successful. They stress being open to change as new research comes out, and, above all, to always strive to do their best with the resources they have.

“You have to look at things from the perspective of the individual, whether the individual is an animal or a person. What should the conditions be? Would you want to exist in that environment? Would you want to be handled in that manner? Would you want to be fed what they’re eating? In other words, we work with all of the professional people who say, 'This is the best; this is as good as it gets,' and that's what we try to achieve. Do we always hit the target? No, but eventually we will because it's our objective to strive to do the best possible."  end mark

PHOTO 1: Bill says he only genomic tests the calves he culls. This way he's testing a smaller group of animals. Plus, it tells him where his bottom group is at.

PHOTO 2: Cow brushes have been installed in each cow pen as well as the older heifer pens to better promote cow comfort.

PHOTO 3: Bill says he likes to keep stocking density at 100 percent. That way, each cow or heifer always has a spot at the feedbunk. Photos by Jenna Hurty-Person.

Check out more images from Green Mountain Dairy in this slideshow.

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