By Tom Collins
MT. ELGIN — Some farmers need months to recover from as much as a 30-per cent drop in production after moving into a new barn. Not the DeBeer family of Compass Farms in Oxford County. They saw an almost immediate production bump after moving the cows into a new six-row perimeter-feeding barn with a 50-stall rotary parlour.
About 10 days after the Feb. 14 move-in date, milk production jumped from 30 litres per cow per day to 32 litres. Now it stands at 34 litres and the DeBeers hope they can hit 36 litres by the end of the year.
“It’s more of an illustration of how bad it was before than it is how good it is now,” said Teun DeBeer, 39, who runs the farm with his brother Ben, 36. “We were full and overcrowded. It was really tough for us. Now we have the room, the milking system. The cows go in and out of the parlour a lot quicker.”
The 355-ft.-by-136-ft. multi-million dollar barn includes a 50-stall GEA rotary parlour, one of the largest in Ontario. The largest is a 60-stall rotary parlour.
The time savings is huge. They used to milk 480 Holsteins in two other barns with a double-10 parallel parlour in six to seven hours. One milking now takes 2.5 hours. Milking two times a day, the brothers are saving eight hours of labour each day. There are now seven part-time and three full-time employees for the entire farm, up from three part-time and three full-time.
The brothers are using the free time to learn the new software and to improve technical aspects of raising cows, such as improvements in the pregnancy rate, plus spending more time with the family.
They moved with their parents from Holland in 1999, originally buying a cash crop farm with the plans to turn it into a dairy operation. In under 20 years, they have built up one of the largest dairy farms in Ontario.
They want to continue to grow. “The buildings we have right now, we can milk 600 cows,” DeBeer said. “That’s where we want to go to first, and then see what we think once we are there.”
Here are four other features of the new 420-stall barn.
In the old barns, the employees would use a towel to wipe down the teats before milking, but that created inconsistencies.
“With different (employees), even though you train them the same way, some wipe a cow with a towel a little harder, someone else a little softer, some go a little quicker, some go a little slower,” said DeBeer. “For us, that consistency was very important in the new parlour.”
The electric handheld FutureCow prep brush allows a worker to wash and dry one teat at a time, ensuring all cows are consistently cleaned. The brush is designed to create a more efficient parlour and can increase milk flow rates, DeBeer said.
BEAUTY IN THE BEAMS
The DeBeers went with high ceilings with a visible steel-framed structure and wooden beams covered by 2.5-inch thick roof panels packed with insulation.
DeBeer said the panels saved building costs and it’s “a cleaner look. It’s been done in Europe. It’s been done in commercial buildings in Canada. But in barns, at least in Ontario, it’s pretty new.”
Due to theft over the years, the brothers installed video cameras, including a few outside and one in the milk house. The feeds for all eight cameras can be accessed from a cell phone. It’s also helpful for security and training purposes. They can ensure cows are being milked properly.
In the old barns, the DeBeers had mats with shavings and slats in the floor, but wanted to go with sand after seeing it work in other barns. They add about 60 tonnes of new sand — about three dump trucks full — every two weeks, but plan to bring that down to 50 tonnes this summer.
The cows lie down more and are more comfortable. Herd health improved almost immediately, and the somatic cell count dropped from 350,000 to just below 200,000 in three months. They are quick to point out that other features also contributed to herd health: The new milking system, reduced stress as cows wait for shorter periods of time in the holding area before milking, and a barn that is not overcrowded.
“If you had told me before (that the SCC would drop so quickly), I would think it was unrealistic,” he said.
There were a few challenges in the first few days in the new barn. Cows wouldn’t lie down in the sand. Hooves wore more on some cows so they were put into a separate straw pen until the hooves adjusted.
While those who have sand swear by it, others say the sand gets into everything and makes cleaning the manure pit a longer and tougher job. “The way we see it,” said DeBeer, “if (manure pit cleaning) takes two days, then we have 363 days of joy and two days of headaches. That’s still a good trade-off for us.”