By Tom Collins
ELIZABETHTOWN-KITLEY — Not every new barn is a smooth transition for the cows or the farmers.
Greaveston Holsteins, north of Brockville, are seeing things turn around after a few hiccups when the cows moved from a tie-stall barn to a freestall in March.
“It was a rodeo,” said Ron Greaves, 65, who runs Greaveston Holsteins with his wife Dianne, son Andrew, 37, and daughter-in-law Shannon. “Cows don’t like a lot of change. They ran around and bawled for about two-and-a-half days before they settled down and realized that we weren’t going to do anything drastic and that the environment was better than what they were in (before).”
The Greaves had plenty of help from friends and neighbours, who were at the barn 24/7 at the start to help push the cows into the robots. It took about two weeks before the cows were fully relaxed in the new barn. Milk production fell as the later-lactation cows and the older cows didn’t respond to the robots as expected. Used to being milked every eight hours in the tie-stall, the cows are averaging just 2.6 milkings per day in the freestall.
Production dropped 13 per cent from 40 kg. per cow in the tie-stall to 34.5 kg. in the freestall by the start of July. The farmers went from milking 96 Holsteins in the old barn to 101, with the potential to milk 120.
“It’s coming back,” Greaves said. “We expect it will get much better as time goes on. As those cows dry off and calve back again and have some familiarity with the robot, we expect they’ll be able to excel as far as production is concerned.”
The Greaves are high on robots as the machines take away the labour-intensive work. It used to take one person about three hours to milk with a pipeline system in the old 35 ft. by 260 ft. tie-stall barn. Ron, Andrew and herdsman Jason Schaafsma would each take a shift every eight hours. When one of those three needed time off, it became more labour-intensive for the other two if they couldn’t find a replacement milker.
There are no such problems with the new 107 ft. by 260 ft. freestall barn. It even allowed Andrew to take a vacation in early July, his first week-long vacation in several years.
The farmers still spend the same amount of time in the barn, but now that time is spent on the computer, monitoring the herd for health, milk production and reproduction.
All of the cows, feed, bedding and milkers are located in the middle of the barn. This leaves a track around the cows all the way around the barn. Greaves said two of his grandchildren used that ring to practice for track and field meets.
Greaves’ favourite feature is the new automated feeding system. The silos dump the feed onto a conveyor belt that brings the feed to the TMR which automatically mixes it. The feed is then delivered to the cows by a Valmetal Distributor Cart (DAF), which hangs off a track to move down the feed alley. The barn has 700 feet of track, and the DAF will travel almost 3 km a day delivering feed.
“It’s more accurate than we were at mixing it, and it’s a big timesaver,” Greaves said.
The new barn also has several observation cameras to allow the farmers to check in on the cows through an app on their phone or a computer at the house.
Here are three other features of the new barn that farmers saw at the Aug. 27 open house.
Controlled flow barn
The gates have sensors that control the movement of the cows as part of a milk-first layout, a unique design that may be the first of its kind in Eastern Ontario. If a cow wants to go through the gate to get to the feed, the computer will scan the cow’s transmitter — located around the cow’s neck — and know when it was last milked. If it’s been a while, the gate to a holding area that leads to the milker will open instead.
“Andrew visited several farms with this controlled flow and they were getting tremendous production,” said Greaves. “It has yet to be seen for us if we can get that result, but we think it will in time.”
The tie-stall barn had tunnel ventilation, with fans located on one end wall and doors were opened at the other end, allowing the wind to flow through the barn.
That system had its flaws, said Greaves.
“In alleyways, air was flowing great, but cows (in stalls) were not getting enough air” as air flowed over their heads, he said. The freestall barn has four Big-Ass fans on the ceiling, so the air goes directly down on top of the cows to cool them all off. The open walls and cathedral ceilings also help keep temperatures down.
They also set up a sprinkler system that sprays a mist from a water pipe for 15 seconds onto cows at the feeding bunk when the barn gets too hot. “The first time that came on, the cows all jumped back and wondered what was going on,” said Greaves, adding the cows took to it pretty quickly. “You don’t mind standing under there yourself on a hot day.”
The Greaves used a mixture of shavings and chopped straw in the tie-stall barn. Moving to the freestall, they separated the two. The chopped straw went to the dry cows, while the shavings went to the milking cows to keep them cleaner and drier. The Greaves bed the milking cows every day.