by Karl H. Kazaks
McGAHEYSVILLE, VA — Gerald Heatwole and his son Monte have made a number of improvements to their dairy here in eastern Rockingham County over the past several years.
It all stems from a concerted effort to invest in the future, a strategy that led the Heatwoles this year to install a new concrete manure lagoon and to buy new farming equipment.
“We’re constantly making improvements,” Gerald said, “putting extra cash flow back into the farm. We’re always looking to identify and improve the weak link in our operation.”
The recent spate of improvements began seven years ago when the Heatwoles — who milk 420 Holsteins 3x — put in a loose housing barn. The barn supplanted several sacrifice lots, providing not only better environmental management but also better conditions for the herd.
“It’s worked really well for us,” Heatwole said.
The barn — which has a vinyl roof — is outfitted with 24-ft. fans and sidewall curtains, allowing the Heatwoles to have a measure of control over their cows’ comfort.
The sawdust bedding is replaced as often as necessary to keep the bedding dry. Usually that’s about every five days in the winter and every 10 to 12 days in the summer. But with the wet weather this summer, the Heatwoles had to re-bed more frequently, using about twice the normal amount of saw dust. (The flip side of the wet weather, as many are seeing, is bumper yields — with some fields at Cub Run yielding almost 30 tons of silage per acre.)
They clean out the barn once a year, spreading the bedding before seeding cover crops.
After the Heatwoles added the new loafing barn they modified their existing freestall barn, taking out the middle row of stalls to add a second feed bunk. Heatwole acknowledged that if he were starting from scratch, he would build something different, but said the refurbished barn “works well for using what you’ve got.”
Four years ago the Heatwoles built another loose housing barn, for close-up dry cows — addressing what they considered to be their weak link at the time. The building is big enough to accommodate 60 cows but usually holds about 30.
“It’s really helped us,” said Heatwole, who serves on the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association Board of Directors.
The Heatwoles added their most recent building about a year ago — a bed pack barn for breeding heifers. The heifers are brought to the facility at 13 months, outfitted with a transponder, then bred at about 13 and a half or 14 months.
“We want our heifers to freshen at about 23, 24 months,” Heatwole said, “and 1,400 lbs.” At that size, he said, they can come in and hold their own with more mature cows, as their milking herd is not grouped by age or size.
As with the other loose housing facilities, Heatwole has found that the new heifer barn has helped both with environmental and animal management.
In addition to the dairy animals, Cub Run has two turkey houses (they raise large toms for the Virginia Poultry Grower’s Cooperative) and raise crops for forage and cash.
Some of the farm’s recent improvements have been aimed at helping the farming side of the operation. For example, a few years ago the Heatwoles installed a certified commercial Weigh-Tronix scale, which they make available for public use.
Recently Monte also built a 1,000 bushel dump bin at their grain bins.
Having such a large dump bin allows them to empty a truckload of grain from inside the cab. “You don’t have to get out of the truck,” Heatwole said.
The Heatwoles raise corn, beans, and wheat and make hay for dry cows and heifers. They planted about 60 acres of BMR corn this year. Like other dairymen, they like the increase in milk they see from feeding BMR corn, but are wary about BMR corn’s 25 to 30 percent yield decrease over conventional corn. Wheat they sell. They also grow rye for silage — creating a silage mixture of 20 percent rye, 80 percent corn.
About two-thirds of their crop land is irrigated, with half of that drawing water from Cub Run and the other half using water from Shenandoah River.
The Heatwoles are also set to receive a new combine this fall — and have already obtained a new 12-row corn head and 30-ft. soybean flex head.
“We realized the time had come to get a new combine,” Heatwole said.
“We plan on being in the dairy business for years to come,” he added. “We want to have the dairy here for future generations.”
Good thing, since Monte’s four sons — aged two to nine — love the farm.
by Karl H. Kazaks