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NC dairy survives sweltering summer with smart planning

Jen Bradley for Progressive Dairyman Published on 28 January 2019
Shelton family

Dr. Ben Shelton (Rocky Creek Veterinary Services) moved his dairy from Apex to Olin, North Carolina, in 1992 with 400 cows on 450 acres. Today, the farm has 1,400 cows with 2,200 acres, where Shelton also owns and operates Rocky Creek Vet Service on the farm.

The dairy milks 1,240 head three times a day in a double-16 parallel parlor with subway. Shelton’s milking herd is housed in 1,180 freestalls and has a rolling herd average of 31,700 pounds with 3.8 percent fat and 3.2 percent protein. Their average somatic cell count is 70,000.

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When Shelton presented a virtual farm tour to a full room at World Dairy Expo last October, he told fellow dairy professionals the cows in his herd have been healthy despite a very hard summer. “We were pushing 85 days with more than 90 degrees, and that has put stress on things,” he said. “Then we received 20 inches of rain at the end of July with the hurricane. Heat and humidity have not helped anything.”

Rocky Creek Dairy has 24 full-time employees, including Shelton’s son, Paul, who is a partner in the business with his father and mother, Mimi. Bill Slade is the farm’s head herdsman, while Linda Gates manages rations for the herd. They all made the trip north in October to Madison, Wisconsin, for the World Dairy Expo event, which was sponsored by NC Dairy Advantage.

Rocky Creek Dairy calf barn

Talking calves

Shelton first discussed the calf operation at Rocky Creek Dairy. He said that for many years, they raised calves in hutches, battling moisture and weather issues.

“We went back to group housing, and then came along acidified milk replacer,” he said. Today, they have a self-feeding system, which houses 50 gallons of milk replacer made in the morning and provides a little more than 3 gallons of milk replacer per day to calves at their peak intake.

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The success of the calf barn can also be attributed to a cleaner air system because of the partial bedding the farm staff does to provide a lounging area for the calves. They have a designated feeding area, which is not bedded. “We’ve been really pleased with this,” Shelton said. “This keeps the air cleaner rather than having moisture and ammonia under the whole area. This group housing is one of the better things to come along.”

When the barn was first built, he said they went with the standard feet-per-calf suggestion, but decided it was too many calves for the area. Today, they have 12 to a pen, in a 35-by-100-foot barn with four pens. Air tubes for ventilation and a chlorine dioxide water treatment also keep the calves as healthy as possible.

He said the farm weans calves at 65 days, around 220 pounds. “I feel like that gets us off to a good start,” he said, adding first calving is at an average of 21 months of age. The springing heifers are moved into the calving barn three weeks prior to their due date.

“Even though we’re in a pretty hot climate, we follow a Double Ovsynch program,” Shelton explained. “We adhere to protocol to make sure every shot is given at right time and cows are bred at right time. I give a lot of credit to Bill for this success.”

Rocky Creek Dairy inside calf barn

Cow comfort

When it comes to the full-grown cows, this veterinarian says the key phrase is cow comfort.

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“But I think we’re learning more about what that really means,” he said. “How do we cool cows, make them want to eat more and train people to stress them less? You can get longevity out of the cow with those things.”

At first, misters were used, but now Shelton said the team has realized cows want to be soaked and get wet to cool down. They use a lot of fans and also installed brushes, which he said are very popular in the herd. Shade cloths have made a world of difference in their climate, and last but not least, he said stall and sand management has become a big topic around the farm as of late.

The farm employs a sand separator and recycling program, does regular stall plowing and has installed PVC pipe on the curbs of the freestalls. This was a few years ago, and Shelton said it really gives more depth of sand and makes a tremendous difference in the softness for the cow. The sand is plowed and aerated every week to loosen up the packing.

Plowing helps keep the sand dry, as does a dose of lime to help. Also, the farm has begun spraying a synergized disinfectant into the sand. He said it’s effective and affordable, only about $75 per week.

Rocky Creek Dairy calves

Feeding program

Then comes the feed. In a hot and humid climate like North Carolina, Shelton said installing a subsurface drip irrigation system is making a difference.

They installed an Israeli-based technology called Netafim on 70 acres, with the goal to increase the reach to 300 acres. “The first 70 acres is pretty expensive,” Shelton said. “The rivet/tube goes underground and puts 10 to 12 inches of water under the corn crop. We have a 100-day growing season on 300 acres, and that’s 100 million gallons of water we would put under those acres.”

He said as long as they are using less than a million gallons a day, a permit is not needed. Cover crops have also helped with soil fertility, Shelton added.

Once the crops leave the field, he said BMR versus conventional corn silage has been an ongoing topic. Rocky Creek Dairy has been using BMR for the last five years, and Shelton said they aren’t seeing the weakness in the stalk, which was the talk several years ago. This is where he said Gates’ expertise comes into play on the farm.

“I think high-quality forage is such a key to us surviving in the industry that we are today,” Shelton said. “I used to say you needed two main things to make dairies work: really good facilities and really good trained labor. I’ve added to my list. You have to have quality forage.”

And a healthy rumen – Shelton said high-quality forage is a large part of keeping cows’ from experiencing those upset stomachs. “In my herd and those in my practice, this problem is much better than it used to be,” he said.

Within all these initiatives to have a healthy herd, Shelton said employee training and understanding is what makes it actually work. “They need to understand the ‘why’ of what they’re doing, not just ‘how,’” he said. “What’s important about it?”

Regardless of challenges they’ve faced in 2018, Shelton said the family and farm have much to be thankful for. He said a healthy herd makes quality milk, and those dairies that will survive in the industry will be the ones that look at how they can do things better tomorrow.  end mark

Jen Bradley is a freelance writer in Chilton, Wisconsin.

PHOTO 1: Pictured left to right are Dr. Ben Shelton with his wife, Mimi Shelton, and Mandy Shelton and Paul Shelton with their two children, Savannah and Logan.

PHOTO 2: The calf facility features 12 calves to a pen, in a 35-by-100-foot barn with four pens. Air tubes for ventilation and a chlorine dioxide water treatment keep the calves as healthy as possible.

PHOTO 3: The dairy has a self-feeding system, which houses 50 gallons of milk replacer made in the morning and provides a little more than 3 gallons of milk replacer per day to calves at their peak intake.

PHOTO 4: The farm weans calves at 65 days, around 220 pounds. Photos courtesy of Rocky Creek Dairy.

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