By Tom Collins
BURGESSVILLE — It didn’t take long for the Droogers to want to change something in their new robotic dairy barn.
The family — Bill, 58, and sons Darryl, 35 and Scott, 31 — started milking in the new barn last December, but immediately had issues with their bedding. The cows were bedded on refined tree bark mulch, but with floor slats and automatic scrapers, the mulch and manure would ball up and plug up the slats. Within a month, the farmers changed the bedding.
The Droogers didn’t want sand as it would fill up the manure pit too quickly, and figured straw shavings were too light and fluffy to consistently stay in the stalls. So they went with a fairly unusual bedding system of recycled cardboard with a lime mixture added to also keep bacteria numbers down. The bedding comes from a New York company, and a dump truck load is dropped off every three weeks. The Droogers top up the bedding every 10 days.
The bedding is fine enough that it looks like dark sand, but since cardboard is biodegradable, it breaks down in the manure pit.
The bedding switch saw an almost immediate drop in somatic cell count that hovered around 300,000 in the old barn. Somatic cell count stayed the same and even spiked higher at times with the bark bedding. Although Darryl credits the robots for helping with the drop in somatic cell count, the SCC is down in the 130,000 to 150,000 range and coincided with the change in bedding.
With the new barn, the Droogers are in the unusual position of having two ongoing dairy barns, five minutes apart, for one quota holding. The family originally talked about building a large parlour for the brothers to run together but in the end decided to expand the home farm (where Scott will take over when Bill retires) and build a new barn just down the road at Darryl’s house.
Darryl now manages the new 130-ft.-by-240-ft. six-row freestall barn equipped with three Lely Astronaut A4 milking robots. It currently houses 120 Holsteins. Meantime, Bill and Scott manage the old 100-ft.-by-240-ft. freestall barn on the home farm that is being retrofitted for six rows and three robots. It currently houses 80 cows. Each barn will have the rough-in for a fourth robot if needed, and will each hold about 200 cows at capacity.
The only difference will be the new barn has perimeter feeding with the robots in the middle of the barn, while the 20-year-old barn will have a centre-feed alley and the robots on each side of the barn. Renovations in the old barn should be completed in the next few months.
While each farm has its own milk licence, they have a combined 265 kg of quota under the same quota holding.
“It doesn’t really matter how many cows are at each farm,” said Darryl, a third-generation farmer. “It fills up the quota from one farm first, then tops it off from the other farm. It doesn’t make much difference how many cows we have at each place.”
Darryl said his dad is pretty happy with the idea of two barns, mostly because of his grandkids. While brothers may get along milking together in the same barn, explained Darryl, that may not always be the case for cousins. By building two barns now, there’s less likely to be a fight between Darryl and Scott’s kids when they take over the farm in a few decades.
Despite the two separate barns, the family still farms together. Darryl still helps with milking in the old barn. He also took the cows from the home farm to fill up the new barn. When a cow in his barn dries off, he brings her back to Scott’s barn where she stays until she calves and then goes back to Darryl’s barn.
Darryl still gets the feed from the old farm, using a TMR mixer to blend corn silage and haylage and driving the mixer back to the home farm to feed once a day. New bunkers have just been constructed on Darryl’s farm, with the plan for Darryl to feed the cows from his own farm within the next couple of months. It takes about an hour each day to feed, but half of that time is driving the mixer from one farm to the other.
While the feeding takes a little longer because of the extra commute, the new robots easily make up for the lost time. Milking 200 cows in a double-8 parallel parlour in old barn took about four hours. With more than half the herd gone, it now takes 90 minutes in the parlour. Once the robots are in the old barn, the hard work of manual milking will be wiped out.
Darryl said the robots give the family more flexibility when it comes to other farming aspects, such as their custom farm operation.
“It’s more of a lifestyle choice,” he said. “With the robots, you’re not tied down to be there, every morning, every night at a certain time. Now if you have something going on, then you do chores a little bit earlier or after that.”
Darryl says cow comfort is his favourite part of the barn. There are automatic curtains on the 16-foot sidewalls that open and close depending on the temperature of the barn. Two rows of four 24-foot ceiling fans over the stalls keep the cows cool.
The whole environment is also much quieter and brighter, said Darryl.
All the talk about the future of Canada’s supply management in the past year was concerning, but also strengthened the farmers’ resolve that they were doing the right thing with the expansion.
“We said, we have to keep going (with the expansion),” said Darryl. “If you stop, then you get way behind.”