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What is your system?

Randy Pepin

Every dairy farm has one; every dairy farm has a different one; some of them are similar, and some are very different. What is it? Your System. We have developed our own system utilizing our existing facilities and incorporating a management system around those facilities.

For the first half of the twentieth century, most Midwestern dairy farms had a very similar system: stanchion barn, milker buckets, milk dumped into cans, small stave silo with no un-loader, manure gutters cleaned by hand, manure hauled daily, feed the cows by hand, and put the cows on pasture all summer. Eventually, dairy farms upgraded to bulk tanks, silo un-loaders, and barn cleaners. These labor saving devices allowed dairy farmers to milk a few more cows in the same basic system. The typical Midwest System continued to evolve with additions such as pipelines, tie-stalls, TMRs, DHIA, artificial insemination, and manure pits. For the most part, this system fit together pretty well as long as the dairy herds stayed smaller–less than fifty to sixty cows or so.

During the middle of the twentieth century, another system began to develop. This system had the cows in some sort of loose housing and the cows walked to a milking center called a parlor. With the absence of technology such as computers and TMRs, the parlor/loose-housing system provided many challenges to attain higher milk production. The labor efficiency realized with the parlor/loose-housing system at that time was minimal for smaller dairy herds. Therefore, most Midwestern dairy producers continued to use the stanchion/tie-stall system that had served them well for so very long.

As with most industries in industrialized countries, there was a push for higher profitability, a desire for labor-saving devices, increased efficiency, and competition. This eventually lowered margins and demanded more output per farm. Many dairy producers reacted to these economic forces with steady increases in milk production per cow through improved genetics and nutrition and small growth in herd sizes. In this time-period, the housing used for most high producing herds was the tie-stall system.

Economic forces continue to have an impact on the dairy industry, and dairy farmers have reacted with many different strategies. Some have taken a low-input strategy; others have pursued niche markets such as organic, on-farm bottling or cheese-production, or genetic sales; others have expanded complimentary enterprises such as beef or crop farming; still others have incorporated off-farm employment to supplement family living. 

The most common way to approach the changing economic environment has been expansion. Expansion in itself provides many options, and the concept of attaining a balanced efficient farm system is a constant challenge. Many times the increase in cow numbers renders parts of the existing farm system inadequate and the farm system becomes out of balance. Farmers with equity positions that allow construction of a new dairy facility on a new site should be able to capitalize on this overall farm system concept as some do.

The most common obstacle many Midwestern dairy farmers experience is that the typical stanchion/tie-stall barn loses its labor efficiency as the herd size approaches 100. For a more in-depth labor efficiency discussion, see my Dairy Star article published December 16, 2010 titled “Before and After Low-Cost Parlors.” Today, technology and information is available to manage any size of a dairy herd to a high production level while also providing excellent cow comfort and proper environmental stewardship.

Many Midwest dairy farms expand in stages, which I call “the slow growth model of expansion.” Many times, due to financial constraints, this slow growth model is the only option available. Another major advantage of this expansion model is that the learning curve to manage new systems in smaller steps is usually less risky than abruptly learning to manage a new larger system. A problem with this slow growth model is that a farm frequently is between two different systems. A good example of this is the frequently necessary situation of expanding cow numbers and housing them in a loose housing facility but still having to milk in shifts in the old stanchion/tie-stall barn. The challenge is that the farm should have the final design of the farm system in mind before beginning the initial stages of the remodel project.

This system approach extends beyond housing and milking systems and includes all aspects of the farm including manure storage and handling, forage harvesting and storage, bedding type, heifer raising program, reproduction protocol, accounting process, labor relations, and management. If a dairy farm over or under-emphasizes any single aspect such as labor efficiency or production, it can cause an out of balance system that is not as efficient or profitable as desired.

So what is your system? More importantly, is your system or your system plan in balance for overall farm efficiency?

November 2011

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