Olson family improves feed efficiency while saving on forage cost

Dan Hansen
A lower roof marks the start of the 160-foot addition to the freestall barn at Olson’s Best Dairy. The new Lely feed pusher helps keep more feed in front of the cows.

SHIOCTON, Wis. – Olson’s Best Dairy was facing a challenge that is common to dairy farmers throughout Wisconsin.

The third-generation dairy farm northeast of Shiocton is now operated by brothers Mike and Kyle Olson, with assistance from their father Merle. They wanted to add onto their freestall barn to accommodate a growing dairy herd, but were concerned about the limited availability of crop acres.

After witnessing the results obtained by one of their neighbors, they contacted Amanda Williams, a feed consultant who works with Barton Kiefer Dairy Consulting Service.

“Barton Kiefer is very good at increasing dairy herd productivity while feeding less forage,” said Williams. “Part of our focus was to see how many tons of haylage we could save them, which was 400 ton per year at the time.”

Prior to the change in feeding, the Olson’s herd was averaging 86 pounds of milk, with 4.2 butterfat and 3 percent protein. Within a week of the transition the herd was at 95 pounds of milk with similar components. “Before, we thought we were leaving some milk on the table,” Mike said.

Building begins

The increase in milk production and feed efficiency gave the Olsons the confidence to proceed with the addition to the freestall barn and increase cow numbers.

“We decided not to go with robots at the time,” said Mike Olson. “The cash flow was there, but it probably wouldn’t be there today. We looked at our existing manure storage and feed, and decided we could also add another 50 cows.”

He admitted the barn expansion was long overdue. “We were milking 225 cows but had only around 140 stalls. Our dry-cow lot was also over capacity.”

Construction on the barn addition began in early 2022. “The original barn was 300 feet long, and we added 160 feet,” Olson related. “We also did a small retrofit of where our calving area was in the older section, which also was overcrowded. The conditions for calving were not ideal, as the calves were more susceptible to cold drafts.”

The former calving area now houses calves that have just been weaned to age 6 months.

Merle Olson, and his sons, Mike and Kyle represent the second and third generations to operate the family farm.

The updated barn

The Olson’s expanded barn now stretches out to 460 feet. Milking cows are housed in the west end, with separate dry-cow and calving areas. Electrical service also was upgraded from single-phase to three-phase service.

They added controlled tube ventilation, which they believe has contributed to increased production. “We waited until late August for some electrical components,” Olson explained. “That was past the peak of summer’s heat, so I think we’ll see a better return on the tunnel ventilation through next year, and also likely see less stress on the calves.”

The Olsons began working with feed consultant Amanda Williams before construction began. “We held pretty steady with production during construction and the hot July and August weather, which caused some heat stress,” Olson noted.

There’s some height difference between the barn’s old and new sections, and they’ve observed some temperature differences as well. “It tends to be about 10 degrees warmer in the new section, likely because it’s keeping more heat in with the extra number of cows per square foot,” Olson explained.

Milking and feeding

The only changes made since construction was completed was adding some gates along the walkway coming from the old section of the barn. They’ve also added a Lely feed pusher to keep feed continuously in front of the cows.

Four years ago they switched from milking twice a day to three times per day. “We definitely saw the added value in our milk check,” Olson said.

Recently, the cows received electronic identification ear tags. “This technology will help us quickly identify sick animals, increase our reproductive efficiency, and be more in tune with how our cows are being affected by the environment and what we're feeding them,” Olson explained.

The family does all the planting and harvesting on about 800 owned and rented acres. “From a harvesting perspective, we really focus on overall fiber and total digestibility of the diet,”Olson explained. “We’ve done a little grass. We’ve used BMR corn in the past but with our low land the value just wasn’t there.”

Currently, they feed two-thirds corn silage and one-third haylage. “We’re getting close to that 6-7 pounds of dry matter from alfalfa and 18-21 pounds of dry matter from corn silage, depending on intakes and other factors,” Olson said.

Today the herd is averaging 102 pounds of milk, 4.28 butterfat and 3.2 percent protein. ECM (Energy Corrected Milk and Feed Efficiency) is now at 110.74 pounds, a jump of more than 18 pounds, which has significantly improved the bottom line. 

Feed costs have dropped, while reproduction is improving. “We really push up feed because there’s more milk to be had with the diet we’re feeding now,” Olson emphasized.