More Space, More Milk

Building a new barn helped create more room for heifers and dry cows. ( Mike Opperman )

Sometimes you don’t see the benefits of making a change on the dairy right away. It can be hard to know if an investment has really paid off. Then again, there are times when you invest in making a change and it pays dividends right away. Like gaining more than 8 lb. of milk per cow per day. That’s what Kurt Steiner of Steinhurst Dairy in Creston, Ohio has seen from cows freshening out of a new transition cow and bred heifer facility. The improved comfort offered by this facility is why his 500-cow herd is making more milk.

Cows Everywhere

Before the new barn, “cows were spread out all over the place,” says Kurt, who dairies with his brother Eric, uncle John and son, Christian. “We had dry cows in one area, prefresh cows in another and post-fresh cows in another barn. Some were on mattresses, some were on sand.” The goal was to get all dry cows and post-fresh cows in one area, on the same bedding, and beside the milking facility.

In the old setup, there just wasn’t enough room. “Late in 2016 we were giving vaccinations and noticed that there were cows that were two weeks from calving that weren’t in the prefresh group yet. Turns out there wasn’t enough room,” says Gabe Middleton, DVM, veterinarian at Orrville Vet Clinic and Steiner’s vet. “Also after an evaluation with Kurt, myself and Allen Johnson, the nutritionist, we happened to notice that fresh cows, particularly heifers, were coming with more lameness than we liked to see.”

Deciding on how to remedy the situation was a team effort. Fortunately, Steiner holds regular management meetings with Middleton and Johnson. They put together a plan to bring all pre- and post-fresh cows under one roof, including bred heifers. Which roof would they put them under was the question.

[To see facility recommendations, click here.]

Getting More Milk

“We thought ‘What can we do to get the next few pounds of milk,’” Middleton says. “A lot of dairymen would have built a new freestall barn for their lactating cows but Kurt identified the need to improve his transition cow facility and bred heifer housing.”

A couple of old barns and a silo, which were built around 1970, close to the milking center were a viable option, but in the end the best route was to go with a new building. A freestall building with a drive through feed alley was built big enough to hold 200 stalls. That’s 100 stalls for bred heifers, 40 for far off dry cows and 50 for prefresh cows three weeks from calving. Everything is sand bedded, with a “shove in” manure pit at one end of the barn. Total cost to build the facility was roughly $2,400 per stall, Steiner says.

Making that investment in the summer of 2017 when milk prices were still moving lower, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the best decision. Steiner says he has his loan structured on a conservative payment schedule so he can make payments in tough times and pay off more once prices come back. But the milk gains and reduced lameness indicate the investment was worth it. Milk production is up about 8 lb. per cow, and Middleton is seeing less lameness issues and fresh cow disorders.

“And we’re not even seeing some of the heifers and cows that have been through the transition barn hit their peak yet,” Middleton says. “It’s still pretty early, so I’m excited.”

Designed for Calving Slugs

The barn is built a little bigger than necessary to accommodate herd fluctuations. Middleton studied some of the work done by Nigel Cook at the University of Wisconsin to identify the projected number of calvings per year, average stay per cow within each group and other factors to determine how much bunk space and stalls were needed. Cook provides the following recommendations for spacing in transition barns:

  1. 30" of bunk space 21 days before and after calving so all cows in the transition area can eat their ration at the same time.
  2. Deep, loose bedded free stalls sized to accommodate the size of the cows using them, or
  3. At least one stall per cow so there is no competition for stalls between cows for resting.
  4. A quiet place to calve with limited disturbance from humans and other cows.

The barn won’t accommodate much herd expansion, but there is plenty of space to withstand calving slugs where a larger-than-normal group of cows and heifers calve. If needed, Steiner can move some cows into the bred heifer area during the summer when heifers have open access to pasture. Apart from more milk and fewer fresh cow disorders, there are residual effects, too. Middleton has seen antibiotic use go down along with fewer fresh cow mastitis cases. Steiner says there are other benefits, too.

“The new barn is right next to the road so people see it when they drive by or when employees come onto the farm,” he says. “Everything looks nice and it helps with morale.”

If Steiner could do anything differently he would have included some way to reclaim sand.

“We’d like to be able to do that, maybe if we build another barn,” Steiner says. “That’s for the next generation to figure out.”


Note: This story ran in the April 2018 magazine issue of Dairy Herd Management.