By Tom Collins
SARSFIELD — Six years ago, Denis Morris would never have dreamed about building a freestall robotic barn.
He and his sons were perfectly content with a tie-stall barn but he knew an upgrade was needed. The old 45-ft.-by-275-ft. barn, originally constructed in 1929, had about another 10 years of life in it. There was also trouble retaining employees for weekend milking, and Morris’s two sons, Jeff and Jon, wanted to spend more time with their young families.
They also realized that public perception was changing the industry. Animal activists were making dairy farmers out to be the bad guys. Activists have stormed barns, shooting video that gets edited and released with ominous music and misleading statistics. In response, the Dairy Farmers of Canada created a proAction program to keep better track of exactly what occurs in the barn.
The Morrises, just east of Ottawa, decided that the future of tie-stalls was limited and built a freestall. For Jeff, now 37, it was a tough decision. He equated a freestall barn as needing a parlour. He’d heard stories of bedding getting stuck in slatted floors in freestalls, creating more work as someone had to frequently clean the slats.
He didn’t like the parlour and thought the freestall didn’t have the labour savings you would have expected. He was convinced he’d never build a freestall barn. However, the chance to milk with robots and improvements in the design of freestall barns helped change his mind.
“There’s a push to go away from tie-stalls,” said Jon, 36 (They run the farm with their father Denis, 62, and mom Claudette). “It’s in the back of your mind that we should think differently about tying up the cows.”
The family spent five years visiting other farms to get ideas. Once they finally decided on a freestall, it was an easy decision to go with three Lely robots. Milking 100 cows, they could have made do with only two but wanted fewer lineups of cows to get to the robots. As well, when one robot goes down or needs maintenance, the other two can easily pick up the slack.
The move-in went smoothly. All the cows went through the milkers within 4.5 hours of moving into the new 133-ft.-by-300-ft. barn. Within three weeks, 65 per cent of the cows were going through the robot on their own without any persuasion.
“Part of our transition success was due to that third robot,” Jon said, adding that if one milker goes down, all the cows can still easily be milked by the two other robots.
Each brother has three young children and now the brothers can help coach their kids’ hockey teams.
The farmers used to milk 90 Holsteins in the tie-stall barn (although they had room to milk 116). It took two guys about 90 minutes each milking head-to-head with four milkers on each side. The old tie-stall barn has been renovated for calves and young heifers, plus the new Lely Vector robot feeder. The family is buying quota every month with the goal to get to 150 milking cows. However, the new barn is large enough to house 200 milking cows, and a rough-in is in place for a fourth robot.
The family’s favourite feature is working flexible hours and the reduced stress on the cows and the farmers. When things are going smoothly, one farmer can do all of the chores easily, whereas in the tie-stall, it would take two guys hours to do all the chores. The cows are healthier, calvings are going well and production is up.
“You can just see how content the cows are,” Jeff said. “In the tie-stall, you would never see a cow lying down sound asleep. In this barn, you walk in and look at one, and you think she’s dead because she’s lounging like she’s right out of it. We like to see that.”
Here are some other features of the new $3.5-million expansion:
Everything is set up for a new Lely Vector automated feeding system. The Vector should be ready for the Nov. 9 open house. The Vector is housed in the old tie-stall barn about 100 feet away. For each foray into the new barn, the robot will have to skirt across a heated pad from one barn to the other. Every hour, the Vector will push the feed closer to the cows, while a laser will measure the amount of feed left. If food is needed, the Vector will go back to the ‘kitchen’ where a conveyor belt delivers different types of feed — such as corn silage, haylage and straw – that is dumped and mixed in the Vector.
Each cow produces about 36 litres per day in the new barn, but volume has been as high as 39 litres. The Morris’s hope that the Vector will increase the cows’ production since the animals will be getting fresh feed 24 hours a day instead of once a day.
Even though farmers know sand can be a maintenance pain, the Morrises say sand is the number one option for cow comfort. A combination of robots and sand bedding has helped reduce the somatic cell count (SCC) from 300,000 in the tie-stall to 150,000 in the freestall without having to cull any cows.
Once a month, sand is added using a sand slinger. A trailer filled with about six to seven tonnes of sand is pulled down the scrape alleys with a tractor. Inside the trailer is a belt — similar to the type found on a snowmobile — which spins quickly and flings the sand into the stalls. The slinger cost $40,000 while sand is $1,000 every month. However, the sand is helping save money on vet bills due to lower SCC and improving profits with better production.
“We have a saying around here,” Jeff said. “No system is perfect. There’s always pros and cons with everything. Yes, sand is a bit harder to handle and, in the manure pit, maybe it’s a bit of a pain in the butt. But we only add it in once a month,” as opposed to straw bedding, which would need to be added weekly.
Cable-driven alley scrapers bring the manure to a holding pit in the barn. The manure is then stirred before being pumped to the manure pit. The farmers also added an air tank to flush out the lines every day to make sure there’s no extra sand deposit.
There are Ventec automatic translucent air curtains along the side of the barn. The curtains fill with air to close up the barn, and deflate to open the barn to natural air from outside. There are also two rows of five 24-foot Big Ass fans hanging from the ceiling.
The day the cows moved in last February, it was -20 C but inside the barn was bright, warm and airy, Denis said. “About a month after we had moved into the new barn, we were going through the old tie-stall. I said, ‘I can’t believe that we milked cows in here.’”
Five video cameras keep watch on the inside and outside of the barn. The inside cameras monitor the robots and the farmers can check on the barn from their computers and smartphones. An alarm goes off if a cow has been in the milking box for too long. “That’s when the camera comes in handy,” to check on the cow without going to the barn, Jon said.
The outside cameras were installed to keep an eye on things, including animal activists. “The cameras are not going to stop anything but you might have evidence or a licence plate or something you can go back on,” Jeff said.