By Connor Lynch
Mike Bechtel rented an aging dairy barn for 10 years. But with a growing family and a desire to expand the farm it was time to move on.
Bechtel had been renting from a neighbour, about 10 minutes from the home farm, north of Cambridge, since 2007. He grew up on a dairy and broiler chicken farm run by his father and uncle. But when the two went their separate ways, Bechtel’s uncle took the cows and his father kept the broiler chickens. “I had always enjoyed working with the cows, so it was never really a question of what industry I was going to get into,” Bechtel said.
In 2007, he got his hands on some quota and planned on building a barn on the family farm. But a nearby neighbour was retiring and had an empty barn to rent. “So we went that route instead. I figured we’d get some quota paid down and get into a better position to build,” Bechtel said.
The barn was a good fit while Bechtel was still milking 25 cows. But as Bechtel started to expand his operation, it became more and more obvious that the time was fast approaching to build his own barn. “It was an older barn, getting outdated. Things were approaching the end of their lifespan.” With two young children, there was the future to consider.
Bechtel’s new barn, where he milks 56 Holsteins, was completed last December and was designed to be as basic as possible. “We built it as simple as we could. It’s basically just a cookie-cutter barn,” he said. One advantage of a simple barn was reliability. “I didn’t want any more stuff in here (that could) break than was necessary,” Bechtel said.
The other was cost. Only 10 years into the industry meant the budget was “fairly tight.” But they nevertheless managed to squeeze in a DeLaval VMS milking robot. “I kind of went from one of the oldest (milking systems) to one of the newest.”
A good builder made a big difference. He managed to fit in an office, a washroom and a vet room into a 36-ft.-by-36-ft. milkhouse.
The new barn is a sand bedded, three-row freestall barn. The rented barn was a head-to-head tie-stall barn built in the 1970s.“It’s night and day,” Bechtel said. The new 212-ft.-by-68-ft .barn came in at a cool $1.3 million. Extra expenses were minimized wherever possible but he did spring for a $20,000 liner in the cathedral ceiling. “You hear too many stories of guys who don’t insulate, and the gussets and stuff rust out.”
Bechtel’s herd took to the new system with few hiccups. The day of the move, Bechtel “milked in the tie-stall in the morning, and had the first cows through the robot that day.” At first they needed a firm hand to get them up, moving, and into the robot, but within four days, as long as Bechtel got them into the catch pen, they would do the rest themselves. “Within the first month, they were pretty much on their own,” he said.
Milk production was never top of mind for Bechtel. He doesn’t push hard on production; as long as his cows are producing, he focuses more on health. That was a perspective that plagued him in his old barn. “We always had problems with summer mastitis, whenever the weather got hot. We always had (somatic) cell count issues. It’s practically disappeared here.”
Production went up on its own, said Bechtel, without him needing to drive for it. He’s averaging 31.5 liters per cow, up from his typical 27 in the old barn. “For as long as they’re milking, they’re holding decent production. (We’re) just doing tremendously better,” he said.
Despite being on a robot, Bechtel said he’s spending more time in the barn than he ever did. That’s due to convenience. Instead of a 10-minute drive to the barn, it’s about “15 steps” from his house. So he pops in whenever he feels the need. “Now I can go out, cut 20 acres of hay, do a few things in the barn, and go back out.”
The barn still has a few features to come. Ventilation is handled by 10 ft. sidewall curtains. Ceiling fans didn’t fit into the initial budget. Bechtel hopes to get five box fans in over the winter. The plumbing is also in place for a future sprinkler system to keep the cows cool during the summer.
Here are four features you can check out at the Nov. 24 open house.
Bechtel figured that his cows are enjoying their new abode as much as he is. Despite sand bedding being a major problem for a manure pit and manure spreaders, Bechtel said he never considered doing anything but sand for his new barn. The sand gives his cows the same protection as straw from health issues like swollen hocks and rubbed raw knees but sand is a fraction of the price, he said. He farms out manure spreading to a custom operator.
Room with a view
The builder managed to squeeze an office, a washroom, and a vet room into a 36-ft.-by-36-ft.-milkhouse. The office also has a window that looks out into the barn, something Bechtel was willing to splurge a little bit on. It lets him keep an eye on the herd while he’s in there, and also gives him somewhere other than the house to bring salesmen and visitors to the farm. “Maybe (it’s) not necessary, but it’s something we wanted,” he said.
Work is much less grueling in the new barn, thanks in part to the new feed system. A TMR feed system handles his herd’s feed, instead of him hauling in mixed hay and baleage. Narrow hallways in the old barn meant he couldn’t even haul in a whole bale at a time, so he’d have to mix a couple of feedings and haul them in piecemeal. “Now you just throw it in the mixer and away you go. I love it. I haven’t had to fork a bale since we’ve been here.”
Hoop style head rail
For his budget, Bechtel said he wouldn’t change much about his new barn, except the standard neck rail. He has converted to a hoop style rail, which gives the cows an extra eight inches of head room, something he said is invaluable if a cow has trouble getting up. “The old head rail, if they got under it, they either got hurt, or got really hurt.”
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