By Tom Collins
GUELPH — The Walker family’s future was sealed by their kids. The 44-year-old tie-stall was past capacity and at least three kids wanted to farm.
Scott Walker runs Walkerbrae Farms with his wife Deb and their four kids Cody, Tyson, Alycia, and the youngest Justin (in high school), and Scott’s mother and father, Donna and Jim, and Scott’s brother Brent and his son James (in his late 20s).
But milking 120 cows in an 80-stall tie-stall was not pretty. When the kids expressed an interest in taking over, they built a freestall barn.
Walker still loves the tie-stall model and believes they are just as good as freestall barns but a change was needed because of the size of the herd. None of the kids had a desire for robots so they installed a double-10 parallel parlour. The kids say they get “enjoyment” seeing cows with full udders walking to the parlour twice a day, he said. It’s also easier to expand as the Walkers would just have to run the parlour a little longer instead of installing another robot.
In reference to robots he said the kids “don’t mind coming in the middle of the night to calve cows, they don’t mind doing a lot of things, but they don’t need to be on-call 24 hours a day. They just said ‘when we’re done milking at night, we want to be done until tomorrow morning.’”
The new milking system doesn’t save time. It took 90-105 minutes to milk 120 cows in the tie-stall, using a pipeline system and eight milking units. It takes the same amount of time in the parlour when you include washdown. The kids wanted to be more hands-on, and weren’t scared of the extra work a parlour would bring compared to robots, he said.
Milk production dropped almost 20 per cent immediately after the Nov. 27 move-in date. Walker said the drop could be linked to factors other than the new milking system, such as stress on the cows from the move. The family used TMR feed for the first time. They didn’t know the proper rationing or how much the cows would eat, so it took a couple of months to get the formula right.
The rebound was also swift. The cows averaged 30 kilos of milk per day in the old barn but are now averaging 33 kilos.
“Our biggest concern the whole time we were building this thing was ‘is this going to work?’ ” Walker said. “You spend a lot of money and you’re relying on a lot of different people telling you this is going to work. But until you actually put a cow through, you have no idea. ”
There are 140 freestalls on one side of the barn. On the other side are 40 stalls designed for dry cows, plus packed pens that can be used for show cows and fresh cows. Both can be easily converted to freestalls to add another 180 milking cows.
They milk mostly Holsteins but also 20 Jerseys, six Shorthorns and one Brown Swiss. It was Walker’s dad who came up with the philosophy of “a cow is a good cow no matter what colour she is,” said Walker. “If they’re profitable and a good cow, they’re a good cow.”
Here are three other features they highlighted about the barn.
The decision to switch from straw and pasture mats in the old barn to sand was a no-brainer, said Walker. They saw an immediate impact. The somatic cell count went from 350,000 to 200,000 within two months in the new barn. It’s dropped to 110,000 in the last two months.
The farmers add a dump truck of sand to the bedding once a week. While Walker can’t say for sure sand is the sole reason behind the healthier cows, health improvement is his favourite outcome in the new barn. Conception rates have gone up and dry cows are milking better after calving.
“I always tell everybody, there’s a hell of a lot of young women out there that love to lie on a beach, so why wouldn’t cows like it?” he said.
However, sand does create its own set of problems. The sand can make cleanup a headache. The Walkers have had to unplug the drain pipes once at the parlour because of sand buildup.
Walker said the kids are more computer savvy so they wanted to make sure the new barn had a system the younger generation would enjoy.
The parlour is equipped with the latest AFI milking computer system. Each cow has a leg band that keeps track of how many steps she takes and how many hours a day she lies down. The system also tells a farmer what day to dry up a cow, when to pregnancy check and if a cow has ketosis.
“I guess I can learn it,” said Walker. “It does a lot more things than I realized it does. Yesterday it called (to tell us) we had a cow calving.”
The Walkers were warned about alley scrapers. Some farmers reported the cables attached to the scrapes could break, while the Walkers’ hoof trimmer said the cables can fray and stick in the cows’ feet.
The Walkers decided to use a skid loader to scrape the manure as they already had a skid loader and could therefore keep their costs lower. Each time the cows are milking or waiting to be milked on the breezeway, someone uses the loader with a tire scraper attached to scrape the manure into a pit at the end of the barn. It takes about 15 minutes.