by Jane Primerano
Black faces peer through the fencing, curious at who is curious about their housing. These Holsteins and Holstein-crosses spend their days in a pack barn at Snow Camp, NC, farm of Joseph Johnson.
“It’s a big learning curve,” Johnson said of his venture into this alternative housing for his cows.
Johnson not only embraced innovation in his barn, he built an open parlor milking system for the 200 cows he milks at any one time.
Free stalls cost more in upfront capital costs, but a pack barn costs more to operate, Johnson said.
One of the most comprehensive descriptions of a pack barn comes from the Virginia Cooperative Extension website. It says: “Bedded pack refers to the mixture of bedding, usually wood shavings or kiln-dried sawdust and manure on the pen floor. Properly managed, it provides a healthy surface.” The pack is on a clay surface, not poured concrete.
While more bedding is used and at a higher cost, this may be offset by less spending on manure storage. Labor costs tend to be the same. A bedded pack requires more daily labor because packs must be stirred twice a day, while the cows are being milked, and dry bedding must be added. However, there is less labor for manure handling. “We get back more fertilizer and the fertilizer is better,” Johnson said. He does soil testing and is inspected annually for the quality. The cows are vaccinated for E. coli.
Fans rattle over Johnson’s cows even in cool air. In hot weather they provide a cooling draft over the cows, but in cooler weather they assist in surface drying.
“Electric costs are $1,000 to $3,000 for the fans,” Johnson said. “We run them at night to keep condensation off and to keep steam off the pack.” Good production outweighs the costs, he added.
In Alamance County, the cows need cooling from April through October, Johnson said. “We only have about a month of bad weather taken all together,” he said of winters on the Piedmont.
Cows are less stressed in a pack barn. “They are not confined, they are not walking on concrete. We still have to trim their hooves, but it’s better on their feet,” Johnson said. “They just hang out here,” he said as he indicated the cows relaxing on the pack, including a couple who climbed to the highest point of the pack.
Recommendations are to clean the pack every fall, applying it to cropland. Johnson cleans out his pack every fall and spring. “It takes a week at a time,” he said. Cleaning the pack must be done cautiously to avoid disturbing the clay base.
Adjacent to the pack is the milking parlor, which Johnson built himself.
He and his helpers can milk 24 cows at a time, speeding up the process. Before the new parlor, he could milk 120 cows in five hours. Now he can milk 200 in three hours.
The cows back into the stanchions.
“The cows wouldn’t come in at first,” Johnson’s mother, Fay Fogelman Johnson, said. “But it’s easier to milk between their legs rather than on the side. And they can’t kick you.”
Fay and her twin sister, Kay, are Johnson’s weekend evening milking help. He also has several farm hands. “I don’t know who’s working in a given week until I write the checks,” he said with a laugh.
Due to the high estimated cost to build the parlor, Johnson built it himself, with sections of old guard rail he purchased from the state. The floor is concrete and there is padding in the recessed area where the milking team stands. “There are no bells and whistles, but we saved about half the cost,” Johnson said.
Most of the herd are Holsteins, but in an attempt to bring the butterfat content up, Johnson has some crossbreeds with Jerseys. This is formerly all-Jersey country and people riding by stop to admire the smaller brown cows when they are in Johnson’s pastures.
Johnson grows all his own starches on about 450 acres. “It’s a struggle now,” he said, “but without producing starch we wouldn’t be able to make it.”
He owns 300 acres and farms about 600. His farm has been in dairy on and off since the 1930s, he said. His grandparents built a house on the farm in 1975, but the original farmhouse dates to 1936.
Johnson intends to keep the farm in the family for as long as possible, getting plenty of help from family, friends and employees who don’t want to see anything but cows on his rolling acres.
by Jane Primerano