Mountain dairy farmers loving 20 per cent production boost, better feet, and lower SCC one year into new sand-bedded barn with robots
By Brandy Harrison
MOUNTAIN When plans started to take shape for his new barn, Robert Velthuis nearly sent the robotics salesman packing.
“I told him, Hit the road. There was no way in hell I was putting those things in,” recalls the 34-year-old. But for the Mountain dairy farmer, whos been milking with two robots for a year, seeing was believing. “I saw a Master Breeder herd with really nice cows and a robot and I realized I wouldnt mind being that guy.”
After about a decade of milking in two tie-stall barns and doing chores in three, an upgrade was a no-brainer. The 100-year-old bred heifer barn had seen better days.
“When it rained outside, it rained inside. It was time,” says Velthuis, who runs Vriesdale Farms Inc., east of Kemptville with his wife, Katherine, and his parents, Henry and Rita.
Two and a half years of planning, building, and tweaking produced a 136 ft. by 304 ft. freestall barn that houses all the calves, heifers, and cows under one roof.
They moved in one year ago last month and by September things were humming along. Production is up 20 per cent to between 36 and 38 kilograms per cow per day. Theyve jumped 20 BCA points and fat percentage is up from 3.6 to 4.1. They only culled four of 140 cows to get there.
“We sell fresh young cows because my old cows can live in this barn,” says Velthuis.
Heres what he loves about the new barn.
Two robotic milkers and a feeder
Velthuis opted for a toll-gate setup with two Lely Astronaut A4 robots in one room to cut down on building costs, give cows one-stop milking, and make daily maintenance a breeze. “All my tools to fix the robots are in one spot.”
He ditched the extra labour of carrying buckets of calfs milk and installed a second milk line that empties into the pasteurizer, only the second Lely barn in Canada to install the system.
With two robots, theyre milking about 114 cows, down from 126 last fall. You have to know your cows, says Velthuis.
Its all in the details. Hes noticed that if the Juno 150 feed pusher is broken, hell lose one to two kilograms of milk. When hes feeding or scraping crosswalks, hes on the lookout for behaviour changes. Hed rather figure out whats behind them than cull.
“Ones an accident. Twos a trend,” he says. “Ive been criticized for giving cows too many chances.”
Katherine mines robot statistics for anomalies, tweaking the robot for individual cows, such as creating a six times per day group to prevent a cow thats refused multiple times from getting discouraged and becoming the fetch cow.
“My secret weapon is my wife,” says Velthuis. “I got lucky I found a wife who loves cows as much as I do.”
Cows have the system down pat. They only fetch two or three cows and even 95 per cent of the two-year-olds figure it out in four milkings. The herd averages 3.2 visits per cow per day with a box time of just five minutes and 50 seconds.
Sand between their toes
Its not uncommon to find 20 cows in a row lying down in the sand-bedded stalls.
Velthuis only beds once every three weeks using a trailer side-shooter to throw a thin layer of sand right into the stalls, using 35 to 40 per cent less sand than the average barn. Its a lesson he learned the first time he bedded whe he watched cows kick it out. “I had the stalls heaping. I saw scrapers of sand going by for the first two or three days.”
Sand piled between the head-to-head stalls replaces the brisket locator, allowing big, old cows to lie further ahead in the stalls. Jourdain stall loops, which are higher near the back of the stall, help cows to back out more easily. Cows arent polishing the stalls by bumping into them and are lying straight, he says.
They also installed nine Ventec fans, a new design at the time, which move air at 12 miles an hour to keep the cows cool.
“Ive learned that when the fans are running full tilt, dont rake your stalls or youll be eating sand like crazy.”
Specialized cow care
Velthuis designed an extra lane to separate late-lactation cows to the dry cow pen. Theyre milked once a day for three days and then brought back manually.
The extra work is worth it, says Velthuis.
“The cows have nice, silky dishrag udders when they dry up,” he says.
Its part of the reason, along with sand bedding, the herds average somatic cell count has dropped by 80,000.
Healthier cows also breed back faster, he says. Hes breeding at 55 days fresh with a 70 per cent non-return rate at first service and a 12.5-month calving interval a month shorter than the old barn.
The office overlooks the calving and fresh cows pens, which are bedded with five feet of sand topped with four inches of straw. He forks off at least three wheelbarrows of patties each day but cows are calved in right, he catches fresh cow problems quickly, and they peak a few kilograms higher.
The fresh cow pack also doubles as a sick bay, where cows with sore feet can heal.
The barn has a one per cent slope and while cabled manure scrapers run just four times per day, the floors are dry. The 13.5- and 11-ft. alleys store manure and moisture drains into the pit from a 1.5-inch square channel that runs the length of the barn.
Foot rot problems are gone and few cows have manure over the hairline on their feet, says Velthuis.
The manure room wasnt an afterthought. Part of the main barn, its open with hoppers covered by a fibre mesh to let manure gasses ventilate.
Its a lesson learned the hard way six years ago. His father Henry was fixing the agitator when he passed out. He floated in manure for 15 minutes but they managed to revive him.
“We count our blessings and made sure the new barn wasnt going to be that kind of deathtrap,” says Velthuis.
One year in, the expansion has worked so well that Velthuis wouldnt change a thing. He finds himself looking for excuses to head to the barn.
“You want to be in the barn. You see how everything clicked and you think, Wow, why didnt we do this years ago?”