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‘There’s a lot to be said for simplicity’: Harrison Dairy future built on cow basics, cow flow

Sherry Bunting for Progressive Dairyman Published on 03 June 2016
Rations are simple and the barn is naturally ventilated

“There’s a lot to be said for simplicity,” Steve Harrison observes about the cow management and cow flow basics that prevail at the expanding and diversified Harrison Dairy Inc. based on the family’s Century Farm near Loudon, Tennessee.

“We don’t do everything perfect, but we do our best to keep things simple and constant, with few changes, so our cows calve with a good attitude.”

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Steve and his wife, Beverly, raised three children here, and today the fifth generation is involved in the 900-cow dairy at the home farm, with manager Brian Yockel running the 400-cow satellite dairy 40 miles away just over the Georgia line.

Simplicity reigns in feeding, breeding and housing the cows at the home farm, which has been in the Harrison family since 1901 and became a dairy in the 1940s.

Over the years, Steve has expanded the dairy from 300 cows at one location to a milking herd of 1,300 at two locations and diversified with the addition of a milk transport business.

“I knew that if my children are to have the opportunity to continue this dairy, I needed to step up,” says Steve, observing this generation to be aggressive, tech-savvy and more specialized in their educations.

Son Mark’s focus is the cows and the dairy, son Bo the crops and heifers, and daughter Rebecca does the bookkeeping.

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A good day, says Mark, comes down to the simple things: “Good weather and few problems.”

He believes people tend to be best at the things they enjoy, and he enjoys working with the cattle and building relationships with others on the team. Brother Bo enjoys being outside and working most with the crops and equipment.

Together, Loudon and Greene counties make up the largest pocket of dairy production in the Volunteer State. This Sweetwater Valley is defined as the area of fertile soils between western North Carolina and the Cumberland Plateau of the Great Smoky Mountains. It stretches from Knoxville to Chattanooga in proximity to the Sweetwater Creek.

The Valley is also known for its progressive farms, and Harrison Dairy is one of them – producing 80 to 88 pounds of milk per cow per day and somatic cell counts consistently under 200,000.

Despite low milk prices and tight margins with prices at barely breakeven last summer and below breakeven today, Tennessee dairy producers tend to be a progressive and optimistic lot.

“We were fortunate to have two bumper crop years in a row (2013 and 2014), giving us a whole year of feed in storage,” Steve notes, adding that in 2015, they grew fewer acres of corn.

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They farm 2,300 acres, owned and leased, growing corn and sorghum silage; switchgrass, they double-crop with wheat as a cash crop, using the straw in the ration as well.

Last summer, the take-home net mailbox price was $17.36, which was basically breakeven on the cash costs of production, with total cost of production above $19 per hundredweight. To help manage the margin, the Harrisons look to build feed inventories, use alternative protein sources, and they contract feed, but they don’t contract milk.

They operate with a two-site model. Replacement heifers are brought to the home farm at 50 days pre-calving. Mature cows also spend their dry period here. Cows and first-calvers freshen and stay here until they are confirmed pregnant.

With the satellite dairy set up just for milking, efficiencies are gained by keeping most of the labor at the main dairy on the home farm. They move cows one day a week, bringing dry cows to the main farm and sending milk cows that are confirmed pregnant to the satellite.

The home farm features several compost bedded-pack barns, which have their purpose in managing cow flow and comfort as well as soil nutrients and manure management.

“The pack barns have really paid off in milk production and live calves,” Steve reports. “It also provides a good way for us to keep the manure solids and to haul those nutrients to fields at the ideal times and farther from the barns.”

They manage the bedded packs by tilling it three to four times a week, depending on the weather and the number of animals. They clean the pack barns completely in early spring and late fall, when the material can be applied to fields.

“Pack barns work best when we have the right number of cows. When we have overcrowding, the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio can get a little messed up, and the pack gets a little wetter and gooier,” Steve pointed out. “So we’ll dry it up by adding some sawdust.”

Steve will also adjust numbers with tough culling parameters. He doesn’t want late breeders that run the risk of getting too fat and having problems, and they manage the heifers to calve in at an average age of 21 months with culling parameters there as well to keep a constant flow of milking animals in the pipeline while reducing extra time spent in heifer raising or extra time dealing with animals that are less efficient, reproductively.

“We just don’t keep animals for a fourth or fifth service because they get fat, and that causes problems,” Steve explains, going back to the focus on simplicity.

Their cow flow is designed to keep the flow of milking animals going so they can build herd numbers internally in this closed herd for the addition of another 500-cow dairy barn.

Mark notes that the herd’s preg rate was 32 last year with about 50 percent conception rates on first service. A timed-A.I. protocol is used with the mature cows. Heifers are also A.I.’d, using sexed semen for the first two services.

Harrison Dairy has also steered away from the 15-year experiment in crossbreeding. Steve admits he went for it because the different breeds made things more interesting, but they also made the whole cycle more complex. After six generations of cow data, they’ve come back to Holsteins and are seeing good reproductive performance with this move.

“It just got too complicated,” said Steve, coming back again to his theme of simplicity. He also noticed that the bull calves are worth much more as Holsteins, and the udder quality is better.

The dairy’s expansion via bedded-pack barns was also a pragmatic decision aimed at controlling the variable areas of cow management.

“We went to the compost bed-pack barns when we started running out of space to keep dry cows outside. Now we can better control what our dry cows eat compared with the combination of grazing and TMR,” says Steve, noting that prefresh heifer dry matter intakes average 23 pounds, dry cows 25 to 27.

“There is no step-up ration here,” he says. “We feed switchgrass and straw to control intakes.”

“With all of that roughage, we feed a little grain and a little corn silage and some sorghum silage,” adds Mark, who works with herd nutritionist Rick Barham from AgCentral Farmers Cooperative and the herd veterinarian, Dr. David Byers.

Mark Harrison (right) works with AgCentral nutritionist Rick Barham (left)“We’re feeding a tremendous amount of forage – all the forage we can get into these cows.”

Cows are housed by stage of lactation – dry cows, fresh cows and milk cows, with a fourth group made up of first-calf heifers. They all receive a high-roughage, low-energy diet twice a day.

At the home farm, they feed a dry cow diet, a one- to two-week fresh cow diet and then put them on the milk cow ration they will get all the way through their lactation here and at the satellite dairy.

The Harrisons aim for a 60-day dry period, with nothing less than 50 days. “We really want a full dry period,” Steve explains. “It’s good for the cows and fits with our vaccination program.”

The calves born here are housed individually, at first, then moved into groups of 10. They remain at the home farm until 3 months old, when they are weaned and moved to another location. Wet calves are fed whole milk from the parlor, and the Harrisons also feed some expired store milk and ice cream in the heifer ration as an inexpensive protein source.

“The heat is a problem for us, and our calf setup is labor-intensive because we feed calves three times a day,” says Steve. “But we have found that by dividing up the calf feedings, we see a reduction in scours.” PD

Beyond Print: See more images of the Harrison Dairy by viewing this slideshow.

PHOTO 1: Rations are simple here, and barns are naturally ventilated with plenty of overhead fans and misters for cow cooling. The barns also have comfort brushes that the cows seem to really like and use often. 

PHOTO 2: Mark Harrison (right) works with AgCentral nutritionist Rick Barham (left) to control dry cow and fresh cow diets with straw and switchgrass grown on the farm. Bo Harrison covers the cropping, which includes switchgrass, corn and sorghum silages, corn grain and a cash crop of wheat in a double-crop system. Photos by Sherry Bunting.

Sherry Bunting is a freelance writer from East Earl, Pennsylvania

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