By Tom Collins
ELMIRA — Margrove Holsteins’ new pack barn and swing milking parlour was a good-health decision for both cows and owner.
Dale Martin, 49, used to milk in his old tie-stall with a Westfalia surge-auto-takeoff milking system but it was killing him. He was in constant pain. The new double-12 swing parlour means he can milk again for the first time in 10 years and his son, Ian, is happy to have his father back in the barn, helping out.
“I hadn’t been able to milk in the old barn in a lot of years because of my back and shoulder issues,” said Dale. “Now the old geezer’s back milking again and it feels pretty good. I’m not that old, but I felt pretty old when my back was sore.
“I have a spot in the (old) barn where I don’t know how many times I banged my head and I had to go see the chiropractor,” he said.
Dale runs Margrove Holsteins, north of Kitchener, with his wife Lucille, 47, son Ian, 22, and his wife Jessica, 22 and Dale’s two daughters, Amy, 18 and Renee, 15. The ease of milking is Dale’s favourite part of the new $1.7 million barn.
Also called a highline parlour, the swing parlour’s popularity is increasing. Norwell Dairy Systems has installed 18 swing parlours in Ontario in the past five years, including six in 2017. Norwell salesman Dirk Molenaar says a swing parlour can cost about $180,000 compared to $200,000 for a robot. But a swing parlour can milk at least twice as many cows as one robot, said Molenaar.
A set of 12 milking units hang from an overhead pipeline that runs down the centre of the parlour pit. Twelve cows are walked into each side of the parlour. The milking unit hangs from an overhead metal arm that swings from one side of the parlour to the other. After each cow is milked, the teat cups and tubing automatically detach and the farmer manually swings one of the arms to milk a cow on the other side of the parlour.
Dale and Ian researched other barns for five years and figured out pretty quickly they are not robot people. With a robot, there would be a chance of being called out to the barn at all hours of the day and night to deal with an issue.
“We liked the idea of putting in a bigger parlour, getting the cows milked fast and being done and leaving the barn in the evening knowing that the chores are done,” Ian said. “That idea appealed to us rather than having the cows being milked 24 hours a day.”
They milk twice a day and the swing parlour has doubled their speed. It took two people about 75 minutes to milk 64 cows in the old 110 ft. by 140 ft. tie-stall barn. Now it takes slightly more than 60 minutes for two people to milk 104 cows in the new 86 ft. by 460 ft. barn. The goal is to get to 140 milking cows within the next five years.
“I always wanted to milk cows,” but the chores took too long and required too many hands in the 100-year-old tie-stall barn, Ian said. “There’s more free time now. A lot of times we’re done chores by 6:30 p.m. versus 8 p.m.”
As with most new barns, the cows didn’t take to the new milking system right away. There was a drastic dip in production after the July 17 move-in, dropping from 37 litres to 31 litres per day per cow in the new barn. That number has since increased to 33 litres per cow. It’s still short of where the Martins would like it to be, which is 35 litres by Christmas and 40 litres within a year.
A TMR mixer hooked up to a tractor is used to feed the cows. Once a day, Dale drives to the silos and the corn bunker to get feed and then drops it off to the cows using the same tractor. A feed pusher comes by every two hours.
Here are other features of the new barn.
The Martins chose to go with a compost pack-bedding system that uses a combination of sawdust and manure to create a composting system that continually gives the cows fresh bedding. The sawdust bedding is cultivated 10-12 inches deep twice a day with a small chisel plow. This pushes fresh manure to the bottom and pushes sawdust to the top. This allows for more air flow, which heats up the mixture to kill bacteria and bugs.
The amount of sawdust added varies depending on the weather (sawdust is added more often in wet weather) but a total of 400 cubic feet of sawdust is added to the mix every two weeks. The plan is to remove eight feet of compost manure along the scrape alley when the pack gets full. This method would mean the farmers would never have to completely replace the bedding all at once.
With no stalls, cows are free to wander around the 50 ft. by 320 ft. pack bedding area and lie down where they like. This allows for 154 sq. ft. per cow. The goal is 120 sq. ft. per cow when the barn is full.
“We like seeing a cow completely on her side and all four legs out,” said Ian, delighted with the cow comfort. “You feel like you should go poke her to make sure she’s still alive.”
The pack bedding means there’s no worry about straw or sand getting into the manure pump or manure pit. Since much of the manure becomes part of the compost pack bedding, there’s not much manure for the alley scrapers, so the new barn is equipped with a standard slurry pump instead of a piston pump.
The walls have climate-controlled automatic curtains. There are seven Norwell Secco fans along the cathedral ceiling down the middle of the pack.
During the September heat wave, “The curtains were wide open and fans were going full speed,” said Dale. “The coolest place on the farm was in the barn.”
Hydro costs played a role in some of the decisions. The fans are high-efficiency and the farmers also made the switch from two industrial-sized water heaters to heating the water with a boiler. That water is used to wash the milking system and to heat the office.
“Our electricity bill is lower in the new barn than it was in the old barn,” Dale said.