By Tom Collins
MAXVILLE — A dairy family, who lost their milking herd to a barn fire soon after a renovation, has decided to switch from robots to a milking system with a more personal touch.
The August, 2018 fire at Charlie and Tammy Jack’s Maxville farm destroyed the 84-milking cow herd but the 130 heifers and dry cows were saved. The fire marshal said the fire began in the mechanical room, but the exact cause is unknown.
Earlier in 2018, the Jacks had renovated their old tie-stall barn and added a 100-stall freestall addition, and installed robots. The cows were milked with robots for about seven months before the fire.
While Charlie Jack said the robots worked well, the farmers were missing that one-on-one care that you get from milking a cow.
They also wanted a system where they didn’t have to worry about going back to the barn if an alarm sounded.
“For years, we milked in the tie-stall and when you were done at night, you were done,” he said. “With the robots, there was always that odd time when there was something and you had to go back.”
The Jacks switched to a double-10 swing parlour in their new five-row freestall, 106-ft.-by-296-ft. barn. Also known as a highline parlour, the system is similar to a parallel parlour, with milking stalls for 10 cows on each side.
But there is only one set of 10 milking units that hang from an overhead metal arm that runs down the centre of the parlour pit. The farmer fetches a set of 10 cows, preps them and starts the milking process on one side of the parlour. While those 10 are milked, he or she gets the next set of 10 cows ready on the other side. 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. They began milking with the swing system in the new barn last October.
The system is easy enough that an entire milking can be done by one person. Charlie does the morning milking while Tammy does the evening one. They milk 70-plus cows in an hour.
The majority of the milking herd are fresh heifers. Besides the animals they saved from the fire, the Jacks bought 45 heifers from a neighbouring farmer that left the industry in 2018, bought cattle from two dispersal sales, and another 15 from a private sale.
Because of the piece-meal herd, only eight cows were milked the first week in October in the new barn. That went up to 37 milking cows in November. They were up to 80 Holsteins by the end of last month.
Another uncommon sight in a freestall barn is tunnel ventilation, although it is growing in popularity. Nine fans line one end of the barn and there are about 88 inlets in the ceiling.
In the cooler months, the inlets open to let fresh air in. The fans pull the air into the barn through the inlets, which pull an even amount of fresh air throughout the barn.
In the summer, when a stronger breeze is needed to cool the barn, the inlets close and they open panels and garage doors at the opposite end of the barn. The fans suck the air through the barn, creating a breeze. This system allows for another rarity: There are no ventilation curtains on the sides of the barn. Instead, the side walls have large, glass windows to allow for sunshine. The ceiling – at 14 ft. high at the peak – is much lower than the 20-to-25 ft. high peaks in many new barns. But the lower ceiling helps the fans pull the air through the barn.
The breeze also lowers the number of bugs in the summer.
“It’s excellent,” said Jack about the ventilation system, which they had in the robot barn. “There’s fresh air in the barn all the time but not a draft or a wind in winter.”
Here are other features of the new $3.2-million barn:
Heated nursery: The 34-ft.-by-68-ft. nursery has its own independent ventilation system and is heated by propane in the winter. The Jacks say their calves have great growth rate when they are warm.
Feeding: Four new tower silos were built to store the feed, and conveyor belts bring the feed from the silos to a TMR mixer. After mixing, the Jacks bring the feed to the milking cows twice a day and the heifers and dry cows once a day via gas-powered silage carts. This system cuts down on feeding time (it’s about an hour a day total to deliver the feed, but time is saved on mixing), and the Jacks don’t have to open and close the door to drive a tractor and TMR mixer throughout the barn.
All the cattle under one roof: There are over 200 head in the barn, with space for 260. “That way, when I’m in the barn, I can see everything,” said Jack.
Bedding: Pasture mats with foam covers. About 15 bags of shavings are added every second day. It doesn’t require any equipment to bed and the cows are not disturbed. Sand was never considered as there is too much maintenance. “I crop in the sand. The last thing I wanted was it in the barn,” he said.
Manure: Automatic alley scrapers.
Video cameras: Designed to mostly keep an eye on cows, the cameras also serve as a security system. The cameras allow the Jacks to see a live feed of the barn on their phones from anywhere in the world.