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How two dairies transformed their facilities and futures

Jayne Sebright Published on 06 November 2015
Family photo

Change is never easy, but it is a part of getting better and growing.

In Pennsylvania, more than 40 dairy farms are enrolled in the Center for Dairy Excellence’s Transformation Team Program, committing to making meaningful changes that will improve the blueprint of their dairy for the future.

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The Transformation Team Program was first launched in 2010 when 10 farms signed up to be part of a case study over a three-year period. In 2014, as those farms were completing their transformations, the center opened the program to additional farms wanting to make significant changes on their dairies.

Thirty-nine dairies signed up during the 2014-2015 fiscal year, with quite a few more on the waiting list to enroll in the program during the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Collectively, the farms enrolled have expressed interest in adding an additional 1,500 cows to Pennsylvania’s dairy herd.

The program provides grant funding to these farms to begin their planning process and work with a team of advisers who can bring much- needed outside expertise to their project. Enrolled farms find the team concept invaluable in moving through the decision-making process critical to the planning stages of the project.

Transformation projects supported through the program focus on an array of areas, from youngstock facilities to manure storage facilities to renewable energy projects to new milking parlors, freestall barns and robotic milkers for the milking herd.

Although most of these teams are still in the very early stages of the transformation, the Center for Dairy Excellence reached out to two farms asking them to share insight on their plans and experience with the Transformation Team Program.

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Franklin Sankey and his wife, Dawn, from Sankeycrest Farms in Clearfield were forced to make a decision 18 months ago when a barn fire left them without dairy facilities. During the fire, they lost 17 heifers and one milking cow from their 50-cow herd.

Transformation is nothing new to Duane and Marilyn Hershey of Cochranville. Their first major expansion was in 2001 when they went from milking 60 cows in a tiestall barn to milking 320 cows in a freestall and parlor setup. Since then, they expanded two more times to the current herd size of 700 head.

They are located only an hour outside of Philadelphia, with development all around them. Their project involves building a methane digester that, among many other things, will allow them to reduce odor when hauling manure.

Below, Franklin Sankey and Marilyn Hershey open up about their experiences.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish through your transformation project?

SANKEY: Shortly after the barn fire, I found out about the Transformation Team Project and decided to take advantage of the opportunity. The team’s purpose was to help us plan and keep on track financially with our plans to build the new facility and transition the cows into that facility. We built a 72-cow freestall barn with a slatted floor and manure storage underneath and a double-six parallel parlor. We kept the old facility foundation to renovate that site into a facility for the heifers.

On our team, we had our banker and accountant, the engineer who designed the barn, the contractor who built our barn and our nutritionist. One of the main things they helped us think through was the need to buy more cows. We are buying them as bred heifers at about seven months pregnant to allow them time to transition to the new setup before entering the milking herd.

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 HERSHEY: We had considered a methane digester, but the timing wasn’t right. Now, with the grant opportunities opening back up, we decided to pursue it again. Our transformation team helped us make decisions throughout the project. We did a lot of research, and Duane and I looked at a lot of digesters, both in this area and in Wisconsin. The team helped us evaluate the research before deciding to pursue the project.

The team also helped us look at our cow numbers and our financial numbers to determine what we could do and what our opportunities are. Our banker, accountant, a farmer, engineer and a representative from the center also served on our team. They helped us answer questions, like whether this is feasible for our operation, how much would need to be funded by grants to make it work financially and what it needs to look like. Ideally, we wanted more than 50 percent of the project covered by grants for it to work.  1815pd sebright hershey

Q. What have you learned throughout the process?

SANKEY: We spent a lot of time last summer driving around the country and looking at different facilities, trying to decide what we wanted and how we wanted to do it. We finished the new setup in September and have moved the existing herd in to allow them to transition to the new barn before filling it.

There is very little I would do differently. We switched to a TMR, purchased a feed mixer and began mixing our own feed. Right now, the cows have been back a week, and we have already seen an increase in milk production.

HERSHEY: We are still waiting for a third grant to come through before we are ready to break ground on the project. Putting in a digester is such a timing thing, and we have heard this from other farmers. It takes patience because everything consumes time; it takes months to work through permits, grants and logistics with the electric company.

The transformation team gave us a timeline and helped us brainstorm what was a reasonable expectation to bring one in. We are not quite where we are ready to begin pushing dirt because there is such a long timeline of groundwork to be developed. We hope to be pushing dirt in 12 months, but we don’t know that for sure because we are in limbo right now waiting for that grant.

Q. How will the project benefit your operation?

SANKEY: The new setup is also a lot easier on us physically and mentally. Some people say that going from a tiestall to freestall barn requires a longer transition time, but I believe our cows transitioned very well.

The funding from the center helped to defer some of the costs of permitting, engineering and team costs. It’s been a very positive experience for us.

 HERSHEY: Our manure storage system will look different, and we will be able to haul manure without odor, which we had a lot of complaints about. Also, we will use the manure solids for bedding, reducing that cost, and we hope to see cost savings in electricity.

The center grant made it possible for us to have highly qualified people on our team to help us make the decisions we needed to make. Steve Reinford, a dairy farmer who has a lot of experience with digesters, was also on our team, and he has been incredibly helpful because he knows what to expect one year, two years and three years in. If we would not have the center’s grant, I am not sure we would have pursued the project because having those people around the table has been incredibly valuable.  PD

For more information about the Transformation Team Program in Pennsylvania, visit The Center for Dairy Excellence's website.

Photo 1: A barn fire forced the Sankey family of Sankeycrest Farms to rebuild, but it gave them the opportunity to expand their herd. Photo courtesy Melissa Sankey.

Photo 2: Duane and Marilyn Hershey said that reducing odor while hauling manure was a major benefit of installing a methane digester. Photo courtesy Marilyn Hershey.

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