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Pennsylvania dairy producers share cow comfort goals, tips

Jayne Sebright Published on 17 July 2015

Jill, Mike and Bill Ammon

The Northeast is considered an ideal climate for dairying. Access to water, seasonal temperatures and a relatively close proximity to the marketplace all provide plenty of opportunity for dairies to thrive in this region.

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However, the seasonal conditions can bring very hot, humid summers, brutally cold winters, wet springs and even wetter falls. Providing optimal cow comfort, despite those weather extremes, can seem like a daunting task.

Still, every dairy producer’s goals are to see minimal losses in the tank during the summertime and high quantities of excellent-quality milk year-round. That only happens with careful attention to all aspects of cow comfort – from the cow’s resting area, to her time in the holding and milking areas, to the ventilation and cooling system in place, to feedbunk management.

In this article, three Pennsylvania dairy producers share their perspective on cow comfort and the best management practices they have in place to provide optimal conditions for their cows to meet their production goals.

  • Jill Ammon and her husband, Mike, operate Ammon Farms Inc., an 80-cow freestall facility and 250-acre cropping operation in Lewistown, Pennsylvania. Mike’s father, Bill, also helps out on a daily basis. The cows are milked in two groups in an old stanchion barn. The family focuses on maximizing the facilities they already have to provide optimal cow comfort for the herd.
  • Matt Hoover and his father, Dale, own and operate Caristone Farms LLC in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where they milk 285 cows and have 235 heifers. The herd is housed in a newer freestall barn with a parlor setup.

    About 500 acres of crops are farmed between Caristone Farms and Brook Corners Holsteins, a neighboring dairy owned by Dale’s brother Reid and his family. Caristone has two full-time employees and a couple of part-time employees along with Matt and Dale.

  • Robert Weidenhammer is the herd manager at Landyshade Dairy Farm, a 450-cow facility in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, owned by John Landis and his family. The farm has two facilities, including the home farm with 300 milking cows and a satellite operation with 100 milking cows. On the home farm, the milking herd is housed in freestalls with a double-eight herringbone parlor.

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How important is cow comfort to your overall herd management goals?

AMMON: We are continually looking for ways to improve our business, and cow comfort is a very important component of that. The modest improvements we have made in cow comfort have been a good investment for us. We have an older facility, but we try to maximize what we already have. For example, it doesn’t matter how good your cow comfort is if you don’t put up good forages. Many areas work together to support our business. We are only as strong as our weakest link.

HOOVER: We always felt if a cow wasn’t stressed, she is going to do better in production and reproduction. While we would like to use sand for our freestalls, our manure system isn’t set up for that. We’ve seen tremendous improvements in laying time and hock lesions from the improvements we’ve made, though.

WEIDENHAMMER: All of your other goals are going to suffer if the cows aren’t comfortable. Optimal cow comfort makes everything else work better. We don’t do anything special other than watch what the cows tell us to do, and we do the best we can. Everything else comes along with cow comfort.

Matt and Dale hooverq

What changes have you made recently to improve cow comfort?

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AMMON: Two years ago, [Penn State Extension Engineer] John Tyson came out and helped us look at doing something different with our mattresses. During that visit, he identified some areas where we could improve. The first thing we did was add Agri-Trac texturing to the grooved floor in our freestall barn to prevent slipping.

We also took the sidewalls out of the old barn and added curtains to provide more lunge space and ease the cows’ ability to get up. We also replaced our worn-out mattresses with waterbeds, and since then, we saw an increase in milk production. The changes have helped our heifers transition better into the new facility as well.

HOOVER: We recently installed Petersheim Gel Mats on 90 of our freestalls, and we have rubber along our feedbunk, in our holding area and in the parlor. The cows have really responded well to the mats. The mats are now in almost a year.

Since installing them, the cows’ lying time has increased, and the hock lesions have gone away. We bed the mats with shavings, and we bed them three times a week, pulling back the bedding in between. Our bedded packs are also bedded with shavings, and we don’t mix the shavings to ensure milk quality.

WEIDENHAMMER: Ten years ago, we expanded all of our freestalls and raised the neck rail to provide more lunge space for the cows. Four years ago, we went to a deep-bedded stall with composted solids made from manure solids separated on the farm. We keep the solids as clean and dry as possible. Our transition and dry cows are kept on a bedded pack with the composted solids, and we are careful not to overcrowd when it is hot.

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What ventilation and cooling system do you have in placeat your facility?

AMMON: We have 12 36-inch fans evenly spaced over the stalls and feeding area of the freestall barn, with six 24-inch fans spaced on the outside of the barn. We have fans almost everywhere, and the combination of the fans and the curtains on all of the sides and end walls really helps aid cow comfort.

In the summertime, we also turn the milking herd out at night. We do expect a decrease in milk production, but we feel the benefits of turning the herd out with exercise outweighs the slight production loss we have.

HOOVER: Our facility is built on a bit of a hill to provide natural ventilation. We have 38-inch basket fans spaced evenly every 24 feet in our freestall barn, with tunnel ventilation in our holding pen and parlor.

Our holding area has 20-inch basket fans and sprinklers, and our feedbunk has sprinklers and fans spaced every 24 feet over top of it. The sprinkler system is on a control system, with the sprinklers coming on at 75ºF and increasing in intensity and duration as it gets hotter. The sprinklers are not misters; they produce a big drop, and it really helps.

WEIDENHAMMER: We have 36-inch box fans spaced every 50 feet on either side of the barn, with a sprinkler system and sprinklers spaced every 5 feet over the feed rail. The sprinklers run for one minute every five minutes. Everything is on a control box, with the fans coming on at 65ºF and the sprinklers coming on any time it is above 75ºF. Dry cows are in a freestall barn with fans and can go out on pasture if they want.

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Is there anything you do differently over the summer months to ensure cow comfort?

AMMON: The only thing we do differently over the summer is turn our milking herd out on pasture at night and ensure that there is zero crowding in our dry cow barn. The cows in that barn can have all the room they want.

HOOVER: My goal over the summer is not to see a big drop in production, so we try to get cows back up in the barn and under the fans and sprinklers as soon as possible after milking. We also try to keep fresher feed in the bunk and push up the feed one or two times more often per day. We tried additives in the past to enhance bunk life, but I wasn’t sure if that helped, so we are not planning anything for this year.

WEIDENHAMMER: We try to limit production drops and watch dry matter intake. We change the ration if they are not eating as much to keep the energy to them. We also use higher-conception bulls to help with conception rate, and we rake and bed the stalls more in the summer to keep cows drier.

While cow comfort tactics differ from farm to farm, developing a well-planned strategy, and re-evaluating that strategy periodically, can lead to improved protocols and enhanced cow comfort. Working with an outside consultant can often uncover things you might not see or have thought of being involved with the dairy day in and day out. More resources are available at the Center for Dairy Excellence website.PD

PHOTO 1: Jill and Mike Ammon, their son, and Mike’s father, Bill.Photo courtesy Ammon family.

PHOTO 2: Matt and Dale Hoover. Photo courtesy Hoover family.

Jayne Sebright
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