Thirty years ago, what was considered "dairy modernization" often consisted of adding stalls for 10 cows at the end of a dairy barn.
Today, the term typically describes major capital investments that address dairy cow comfort; increased dry matter intake and milk production by the cows; labor efficiency; improvements in farm owner and employee health and safety; the likelihood of better operating profits; and improvement in the quality of life for dairy farm owners and their families.
In many cases, "dairy modernization" is also closely linked to a transfer of dairy ownership and management to a new generation, changes in production systems away from tie-stall barn milking and new business entity forms to accommodate ownership and transfer of assets, said University of Wisconsin Extension-Service biological systems engineer and livestock facility specialist David Kammel at the annual spring farm management update for agribusiness professionals.
As an entire package, those changes can be complicated, but they can also constitute "a perfect storm" for serving several purposes, Kammel said. For some, the timing is ideal because of a several month run of record high milk prices as a starting point for financing modernization projects.
Of Wisconsin's more than 10,000 dairy herds, it's likely that nearly 8,000 of them have tie-stall housing, Kammel observed. That's based on the number of herds with less than 100 milking cows. He noted that the average herd size in the state is approaching 125 cows compared to 54 as recently as 1993.
A survey of 99 Wisconsin dairy farmers in 2012 indicated that 26 percent of them planned to expand their herd by varying percentages by 2017, another 26 percent anticipated they would discontinue milking, 6 percent would downsize and 42 percent expected to maintain the same size herd. Kammel surmised that most of those planning to stop milking have 30 to 50 cows.
Among those who have expanded their herd size or who planned to do so, one common practice has been to switch cows for milking, at least temporarily, Kammel said. But he suggested that trying to do so when the milking herd consists of more than 100 cows is usually labor intensive and that herds at the state average size of 125 head are generally not viable for tie-stall operations.
Those surveys, which were received from 30 counties, also showed that dairy farmers were looking for a better quality of life, improved health and safety, a mechanism for farm transfer, upgrades in labor efficiency, improvements in cow comfort and better economic results, he added.
Kammel's role in serving those goals is to lend his experience in facility design and operation for dairy herds of all sizes. Those facilities include freestall barn housing, milking parlors and feed and manure storage.
When it comes to dollars, Kammel listed such numbers as $8,000 to $10,000 per cow for an all-new site for 150 cows (a total of over $1.2 to $1.5 million), $360,000 to $400,000 for a Double 8 milking parlor suitable for a herd of 400 cows and robot systems of about $400,000 each for milking about 60 cows two to three times per day.
But there are multiple elements in capital expenditures that can be handled in baby steps or phases, Kammel pointed out. He mentioned mixed-ration feeding equipment, horizontal feed storage, short or long-term manure storage, milking parlors such as transitional units, a remodeling in a stall barn, a new milking center and housing for calves, heifers and milking cows.
Improvements in cow comfort can be addressed in freestall barns ranging from two- to eight-row facilities along with bedded pack or compost-bedded buildings, Kammel said. Crucial elements in the design and construction are providing enough space for resting, eating, drinking and walking; protection from severe environmental conditions; and reductions in the likelihood of injury or disease.
Kammel illustrated the possibilities with on-farm photos, starting with two- and three-row freestall buildings for as few as 60 cows and up to very wide barns with sand bedding. As the size of the facility increases, research data by a colleague shows that it is important to provide fans and sprinklers to maintain cow comfort, milk production and health, he reported.
Choices also exist on the type of milking parlors and for new or used parlor stalls and milking equipment, Kammel said. He observed that rapid changes continue to occur in milking equipment.
Regarding costs, retrofit construction is far more economical across the board than new construction for parabone, herringbone and parallel milking parlors. Regardless of the facility cost, any parlor is likely to double the number of cows that can be milked per person per hour compared to tie-stall barn milking, he emphasized.
With facility upgrades, there are also very significant reductions in the per cow labor requirements for feeding, cow handling and manure handling, Kammel said. In turn, that reduction allows the owner to add cows while not increasing the previous requirements for either labor time or cost.
In addition to the economics, there are corresponding benefits for both cows and people. The 2012 survey of 99 dairy farmers in Wisconsin registered agreements of 85 to 66 percent on benefits on six items to cows and of 96 to 78 percent on seven items pertaining to humans as a result of facility modernizations, he reported.
Descriptions of dairy facility upgrades in Chippewa, Dane, Jefferson, Juneau, Marathon, Iowa and Sauk counties were included in Kammel's presentation. He noted how they primarily addressed health, quality of life, profitability, labor efficiency, family life or farm priorities.
The 2012 survey also asked respondents if they would still have a milking herd if they had not upgraded their facilities or operations. Of them, 46 percent indicated they would no longer be in the business without the improvements.
Survey respondents were asked what they would have changed if they would have the chance to redo the modernization project. The most frequent responses were wishing they had carried out the project sooner, that they would have installed a larger parlor or larger freestalls, would have relocated the expansion in order to allow for additions and would have spent more time and effort on the design and planning.
Another survey question probed for the biggest challenges faced during modernization projects. Many topics were cited but those cited most often were working with a general contractor or acting as one's own contractor; deciding on the combination of the best system and cow numbers for the farm; budgeting and financing; milking in existing facilities during the new construction; and design of the housing and milking facilities.
Kammel pointed out that his services are available for the facility design and planning to others who are considering upgrades to dairy or other livestock facilities. To arrange for a farm visit, he asks that interested farmers contact their home county Extension Service dairy or agriculture agent so he can set up several visits during one trip from Madison.