You can feel it when you stand inside the new free stall barn at Kieler Farms, just outside of Platteville, Wis. It’s not really a breeze, but you can feel the air move.“We’re at about 1 mph,” says Matt Clark, who manages the barn. “We’re at about 25 degrees today so we don’t need much air movement. In the summer we can get between 7 to 10 mph.”
Moving the air inside a freestall barn is important, especially for the Kielers’ dairy where the barn holds 1,700 cows. Air movement equals cow comfort.
Keeping cows comfortable was the goal when the Kielers built the new barn last year. They went from a six-row, naturally ventilated barn that housed 400 cows to a 12-row, 300 ft. x 800 ft., barn when they expanded the herd. A new feed handling area and a 50-stall rotary parlor were also part of the greenfield project. Instead of relying on physics and mother nature to move air like they did in the old barn—“winter was always cold and and in the summer there were dead air spots inside that barn,” Clark says—90 72-inch fans on the long side of the barn and 9 55-inch fans on the short side moves the air inside the new barn.
“We talked about adding baffles to the roof to bring air down to the cows,” says Dan Kieler, a veterinarian and partner in the dairy who manages the cows. “When we built the barn we added brackets so we could add baffles if we wanted. But the ventilation is so much improved over the old barn even the way it is now.”
Although you can see the fans and feel the air move as you stand in the barn, what’s not visible is the system that keeps it all working. That is, until you walk into the control room. Mounted on one side of the room is a large box that looks like a power center. Alongside the box are three monitors that show date and time. As Clark brings one of the screens to life you realize what’s in control of the barn. This barn is smart.
The technology installed on the Kieler dairy is unique. It’s not robotic, but it runs without human intervention. There is no animal monitoring capability, instead it monitors the environment to make sure cows are comfortable. Computer technology is certainly involved, but not on a daily basis. More like a “set it and forget it” approach that lets the computer do the work.
A set of three weather stations mounted above head locks, about 15 feet off the ground, monitor air speed and temperature inside the barn. Other sensors inside and outside the barn measure the difference in static pressure to keep a balanced state inside the barn. All of the data is fed to a central computer, which controls fan speed to keep a stable and consistent balance inside thebarn. “The fans never shut off,” Clark says. On this 25-degree day about a third of the fans are operating, and not at top speed. “In the summer when it’s hot and humid all the fans are running pretty much full out."
Cow comfort was on the mind of brothers Steve and Tim Kayhart when they built their 500-stall, four-row barn in late 2017. That’s when they expanded the dairy, located near Addison, Vt., by moving the herd from two separate barns to the new site. A double-16 parallel parlor was added as well.
Their system, manufactured by Genesys Energy Systems, is the same as what the Kielers use. They have 60 5' fans installed over the headlocks and stalls of the barn that measure 634'x101'.
“It’s a phenomenal system,” Steve Kayhart says. “We could tell almost immediately that there were no dead pockets of air.”
The systems operate on temperature and negative pressure, says Joe Borgerding, CEO of Genesys. Producers can set up the system based on the temperature when they want the fans to kick on or off.
“It’s intelligence versus automation,” he says. “The system adjusts based on the variables the producer sets.” The fans in the Kieler barns are set at 28°F in the winter. In the summer, Kayhart says the controller has settings to allow fan speed to ramp up toward full velocity.
It would seem like running so many fans would put the energy bill through the roof, but fans are only operated if conditions inside the barn warrant their use. Even then, the fans might not be running at full capacity.
The control system for the fans modulates energy usage to allow the fans to run at a lower speed as dictated by the weather. “The soft start function as a part of the variable speed system is better for motors and gearboxes on the fans,” Clark says.
The system also has three power settings: efficient, standard and max power. “In efficient mode you can reduce your peak load to reduce demand charges from the utility company,” Clark says. “In max power fans will over speed to manufacturer recommendations to achieve the most air movement during the hottest days of the year.The system creates efficiencies that helped Kayhart’s qualify for assistance through Efficiency Vermont, a utilities cooperative that helps Vermont residents and businesses save energy. Efficiency Vermont had been following the development of energy-efficient dairy barns in the Midwest and wanted to get projects in the Northeast.
“They ended up helping us cost share the project,” Kayhart says. “They estimated payback on the system would be less than two years from energy savings alone, plus the improved environment for the cow.”
Kayhart had to adjust to running the fans during cold weather. When they started the system in the middle of winter last year, he was surprised when Borgerding told him to start the fans and let them run. Kayhart was convinced when he saw that it was costing about $1 per day to run those fans at 20% capacity.
While both Kielers and Kayharts admit cows are comfortable inside the respective barns, the impact the systems have on performance is not yet clear.
The Kielers purchased all springers when they expanded, so about three- fourths of their herd are first-lactation cows. Still, Dan Kieler says they have noticed some improvements.
“Our components are up about four tenths on fat and protein,” he says. “And our somatic cell counts have dropped about 80,000.” He says illnesses are way down, especially respiratory issues, even in cows from the original herd. He attributes changes to better cow comfort.
The Kayhart family went through expansion as well when they moved into their new barn, so Steve Kayhart says it’s hard to separate the benefits of the system from the benefits of the barn because it’s a new environment.
“All we had before was the 4' box fans that turned on full blast in the spring and turned off in the fall,” Kayhart says. “And there went my electric bill.”
Both dairies say it’s hard to give a specific return on investment, partly because the new systems were part of larger greenfield expansion projects, and partly because it’s hard to put a value on the benefits of cow comfort.
“Our goal was to build a barn that would give cows the environment to help them achieve production capabilities,” Kayhart says. “I’ve never treated an animal for respiratory disease in this facility, nor would I expect to.