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Changes in dairy housing – wintering under the stars

Dennis Johnson

Published in Dairy Star December 24, 2005

Outwintered cows on a bedded pack.

Mother told me that I started going to the barn when I was a month old, back in 1940, bundled up and set in a bed of straw while she helped dad with the chores. Since she claims I was very observant from that point on, I’m going to claim nearly 65 years of closely observing the Minnesota dairy scene.

Many tie-stall barns still provide good service.

There have been many changes over that time; decreased numbers of dairy farms, increased herd size, increased production per cow, application of nutrition science to feeding, better forage quality, increased fertility followed by declining fertility. But we don’t always note the changes that have taken place in housing. That is probably because many dairy farms continue to get good service from tie-stall barns and intend to complete their dairy career in those facilities.

Let’s look at some of the changes in housing as an aid to visioning future housing systems on Minnesota dairy farms.

A growing number of large herds have total confinement.

Back in the 40’s dad kept all the animals inside, even calves and heifers were in an old poorly ventilated chicken house that literally steamed in midwinter. He wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving any of his prized Jersey’s outside at night during winter, but during the summer they were pastured and entered the barn only at milking time. The neighborhood had dairy cows on nearly every 40-160 acre farm and they kept their entire herd inside also. Stanchion barns for 20-30 cows were the housing standard.

There were two housing innovations in the 50’s and 60’s. Loose housing barns that kept cows on bedded packs with natural ventilation and open lots were paired with milking parlors on some dairy farms that were expanding. It was surprising to some that cows adapted well to that system, although it required huge quantities of bedding. Forage was usually fed in a bunk filled by conveyors from upright silos. The second innovation was the creation of cow pools. Several farmers or investors would move their herds to a central location where they could be housed and managed together. Management systems and biosecurity of the time were not adequate and the pools soon disappeared. Dad said that the demise of cow pools proved that milk cows needed individual observation and care in tie-stalls. Increased numbers of farms with tie-stalls turned cows out for a portion of the day to feed in the bunk and put heifers on cold bedded packs. The use of pasture declined as stored feeding became easier and lead feeding of individual cows became popular.

Strong new standards for milk houses and milk cooling and storage had a major effect on dairying in the 70’s. Expansion often accompanied renovation. There were significant numbers of warm ventilated free-stall barns, new one-story, 60-70 cow tie-stall barns and increasing numbers of cold free-stall barns. The free-stall barn removed manure daily, decreasing the amount of straw required for bedding. Straw production was decreased as agriculture moved to row crop production. Farmers using tie-stall barns often added space for increasing cow numbers by building one or more additions to the length of the barn.

Since the 80’s, most new barn construction has been cold free-stall barns, often with curtains in the side walls to maximize the flow of fresh air in the summer. Precisely formulated total mixed rations are fed in bunks. Management of large herds has advanced to the point that hundreds or thousands of cows are successfully managed to produce large quantities of milk per cow. The large unit has become a cookie-cutter design. A crack owner-manager of a large herd now-a-days frets over people and financial management, fertility, and cow comfort. This is a much different set of issues than my dad dealt with. But, there are many, many highly successful tie-stall units in operation.

It appears to me that the greatest opportunities for creative innovation in dairy housing now lie with the producer that prefers to own and manage the smaller unit. This individual is ready to make a change from conventional tie-stall housing, or an aspiring younger person with limited funds or credit to establish a large dairy. Some cost conscious individuals successfully keep milk cows outside, even during the winter. Usually they have started by adopting intensive rotational grazing for feeding their cows during the summer. Step two is expansion of the herd for the grazing season that substantially exceeds the size of stable and creates the desire to milk in a parlor. Several farmers have renovated the tie-stall barn to a milking center by tearing out the stalls and constructing a swing-over parlor with a pit for a fraction of the cost of a new parlor. They then utilize an outdoor bedded pack or a compost barn for winter housing. Data is skimpy, but this method is clearly working for farms from 40-300 cows. Preliminary findings from our research suggest outdoor housing can work well when adequate protection from wind is provided. Teats should be dry before cows leave the parlor in cold weather and additional feed will be required. Ice and mud need to be controlled. Health problems tend to be fewer than in conventional housing.

Housing under the stars may not be for every small dairy farm, but the system clearly has potential and should be considered when planning a renovation or change of herd management. Dad wouldn’t have believed it possible, but I think he’d be convinced by a few farm visits.

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