By Tom Collins
CAMPBELLFORD — Farmers visiting the McKelvies’ new compost-bedded pack barn are surprised when they see how clean the cows look. The cows are lying in their own manure and the McKelvies have no interest in cleaning it out.
It’s part of the plan. The compost bedded barn uses a mixture of sawdust and manure to continually give the cows fresh bedding. A transport truck load of sawdust, which costs about $1,700, is brought in every five weeks and the entire load is spread out over the stall-less barn. The cows’ manure mixes with the sawdust to become the bedding. The farmer turns over the top 10 to 12 inches of bedding twice a day with a small chisel plow pulled by a small tractor. Fresh manure ends up near the bottom of the pile and tilling allows for air flow through the bedding, which heats up the mixture to kill bacteria and bugs. The composted mixture of sawdust and dry manure now on top offers the cows a fresh and surprisingly clean bed.
As bedding builds up, the McKelvies plan to clean it out once a year. After six months, the compost is 20 inches deep.
Compost pack bedding does increase the chances of a higher somatic cell count than other bedding types if it’s done incorrectly. But it will reduce somatic cell count when done properly, research shows.
But that’s not how it looks to visiting farmers.
“It looks like the cows are lying on manure,” said Jerry McKelvie, 29, who runs Faybil Farms, at Campbellford, 45 minutes east of Peterborough, with his brother Jeff, 37 and his parents Frank, 67, and Monica.
For the compost pack bedding to work properly, the bedding area must be larger than what you would normally see in a freestall barn, Jerry McKelvie said. The bedding area is 9,600 sq. ft., or about 107 sq. ft. per cow once the barn is at maximum capacity of 90 cows. A freestall normally allows for 24 sq. ft. per cow, he said.
McKelvie said the cows love the bedding much more than the chopped straw on rubber mats in their old 28 ft. by 120 ft. bank tie-stall barn. There’s not as much concrete for the cows to walk on. That improves hoof health, and without stalls, the cows can lie down anywhere in the bedding, he said.
“It’s nothing to see cows completely flat out, legs stretched out beside them,” he said. “If we saw that in the old barn, we’d be concerned because something was probably wrong with them. But in this barn, they lie like that quite often.”
The idea of a new barn percolated in the back of the family’s minds for more than five years. Parents Frank and Monica wanted to step back from the farm but stay involved, and Jerry and Jeff were ready to take over.
The tie-stall bank barn was there when McKelvie’s grandparents bought the farm in 1947. The stalls were small, there was no cow comfort and no proper ventilation. Building new was the only option for the brothers to stay in the dairy industry.
“We couldn’t do any more in that old barn,” he said. “The ability to expand wasn’t there. The ability to produce more wasn’t there. While walking there now, we think ‘how did we ever get milk out of this place.’ I never want to see a cow in there again. The new barn is so much more open. The cows have so much more room, fresh air, the ventilation is so much better. The cows are able to move around whenever they want to. It’s day and night.”
The new 83 ft. by 320 ft. dairy barn is a huge time saver when it comes to chores. The Lely A4 Astronaut milking robot replaces the twice-daily, 90-minute milkings. The feeding system now incorporates a drive-down feed alley that saves an hour a day. The brothers now spend more time with the heifers and calves and are renovating the old barn into a heifer barn.
The cows took to the new barn easily as they had two months of practice. The compost-bedding area was finished last November and the family wanted to get the composting started before the weather got too cold. The cows moved into the new barn in mid-November, but since the feeding area and the robot weren’t ready, the cows were still being milked in the old barn.
Twice a day for two months, the brothers led the 65 Holstein cows out of the new barn, up a 400-metre lane to the tie-stall barn, tied the cows and then milked them by carrying the 10-lb. milker — which they said felt like 30 lb. by the time the milking was done — to every cow. Each milking took about two hours.
“Right around Christmas, we ended up drying off all the extra cows because the chores were taking so much longer,” said McKelvie. “They weren’t going to be milking in the new barn anyways because they were too stale. That week before Christmas we said ‘okay, we’ve had enough.’ ”
With 50 milking cows already in the new barn, it was easier to get them acclimatized to the robot. The cows practised going to the milker for four days where they were fed pellets before milking began on Jan. 9. The training paid off as production dipped slightly to 31 litres per cow from 32 litres in the tie-stall. The dip only lasted for a few days, and production remained at 32 litres for a couple of months before increasing. It is now at 37 litres with 2.8 milkings per day.
Here are other barn features:
Weather sensors and fans
Trying to protect their new investments, the barn is equipped with wind and rain sensors that work in conjunction with the automatic wall-to-wall Faromor curtains.
The McKelvies installed Secco fans, which they say create more air movement than other fans. Four of the fans are over the compost bedding area, while a fifth is located over the maternity pen.
The wind sensor keeps the fans from rattling on windy days when the curtains are open.
“If it gets too windy, the fans slow down and shut right off,” said McKelvie. “Apparently they can get damaged if the wind blows on them while spinning.”
The rain sensor helps keep the pack bedding dry. If it’s raining on the north side of the barn where the bedding is located, the curtains on that wall close so the rain won’t wet the bedding.
The barn is equipped with four video cameras so the farmers can keep an eye on things when they’re not in the barn. One camera watches the maternity area, one watches the calving pen, one is pointed at the robot and the fourth overlooks the main herd.
The cameras are constantly recording. There’s a mobile app so the McKelvies can watch the cows in real-time from their cell phones or computers from the house or even if they are in another country.
Besides going with energy-efficient bulbs and light timers, the McKelvies also installed sensors for the lights over the compost bedding.
“If it’s bright outside, the lights turn off,” explained McKelvie. “If it’s cloudy, the lights turn on. The lights don’t run when they don’t need to.”