by Karl H. Kazaks
MONROE, NC — “Everybody said it wouldn’t work,” Steve Haigler said. “‘Chicken houses are not built for cows.’”
But for the past year — since April 10, 2012, when the Haiglers milked cows for the first time, when (after years of research) they became dairy farmers — the Haiglers have proven that you can adapt a chicken house to a freestall barn.
“What’s made it work is the tunnel fans,” Steve said. “With just ceiling fans it wouldn’t work.”
The family farm — led today by Steve and his wife Reba and their son Evan — has been raising chickens here in North Carolina’s southern Piedmont for over 100 years. At their peak, the Haiglers operated 13 broiler houses. But a few years ago, when their processor asked them to convert their conventional curtain-sided houses to tunnel houses, the Haiglers decided not to make that investment.
They had already converted two houses to tunnel houses — which they still use to raise broilers — but the other houses, some of which had already been renovated in previous eras, they closed.
Losing the income from the shuttered houses, Evan said, was “devastating.”
“It was like getting fired,” Steve said.
The family looked into new sources of farm income. They were already raising beef cattle and crops — including corn, wheat, soybeans and Sudex. They thought about increasing their beef herd, but were looking for something with more regular cash flow. So they took a close look at dairying.
The family did a lot of research, Reba said, to make sure it would work for them and their farm. Steve and Evan visited dairies in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. “We figured it could work with used equipment,” Reba said (and a novel approach to animal housing).
They found equipment at an out-of-business dairy in Gladys, VA. “We wanted to buy their headlocks and freestalls,” Evan said, “but he would only sell them if we took his parlor, too.”
So the Haiglers bought the whole lot. They spent over a year constructing a parlor “when we weren’t in the field,” Evan said. Today they use their double-9 parlor to milk about 60 Holsteins 2x.
“We started small to see if it works for us,” Reba said.
“We didn’t think we could go bust on sixty,” said Steve.
They sold some of the beef cows to help pay for the parlor and the milking cows. The recent rise in the price of beef helped them finance the transition at the cost of fewer beef cows.
“When we were planning the dairy,” Evan said, “it took about three beef cows to buy one dairy cow. We were able to buy one dairy cow buy selling one cow-calf pair.”
The Haiglers had already been making hay and silage for their beef cattle, so they had hay- and silage-making equipment and knowledge. They did dig two new silage trenches.
But the whole operation hinged on making an old chicken house work as a barn for cows. The house they decided to use was a 40’ x 200’ chicken house, originally built in the 1950s (it still has the original concrete block foundation) and renovated in 1985. They put in eight 48” tunnel fans at one end of the house, installed water lines to use as foggers, and poured concrete through most of the house.
The concrete pad encompasses the area of the freestalls and beyond the headgates, but there is still a dirt aisle along one side of the house, past the headgates. The Haiglers didn’t want to build a thick pad all the way to the edge of the house, as the added floor height could cause the tractor pulling the mix wagon to hit the rafters.
As it is, at feeding time the tires on one side of the tractor ride on the concrete pad while the tires the other side ride on the dirt lane. In retrospect, Steve says, he would have liked to put the pad in all the way to the wall of the house, making it slope downward the last few feet to make sure the tractor could still pass under the roof system. He’s even thinking adding a sloped concrete pad like that way to cover the dirt lane.
The Haiglers also poured a concrete lane to connect their barn to their parlor.
Last summer, they realized that had to make another modification to their new barn. With the temperature rising, the foggers and tunnel fans weren’t keeping the interior of the barn cool enough.
There wasn’t time to buy a commercial cool cell unit, so the Haiglers decided to make one themselves. First, they tried spraying water at the entrance of the barn opposite the fans. That wasn’t sufficient, so they built a vestibule-like space at that entrance of the barn and covered all three sides with shade cloth they had on hand for their chicken houses. Then they ran pipe to have nozzles spray water onto the cloth.
“It made a big difference,” Reba said.
In addition to housing management, the Haiglers have also had to learn a new approach to calf management. Dealing with dairy calves, they realized, isn’t quite the same as dealing beef calves.
The Haiglers credit Dr. Karen Jordan of Siler City for helping them learn about how to care for dairy calves.
“You’ve got to make sure they get what they need,” Evan said.
Aside from practical details, Reba noted that, “in terms of time commitment, milking cows is not much different than chickens.”
Now that the Haiglers have found that they can make dairying work, they’re looking to expand the size of their herd to about 120 in the next year or so. That’ll mean converting another chicken house — this time probably a 400’ long house (with more than eight tunnel fans) — but now the Haiglers know how to make the transition work.
Deciding to become a dairy was a major decision for the Haiglers. “Raising chickens is all I’d ever done,” said Steve. The transition, he said, “was nerve-wracking. But we think this is going to work.
“I’ve got to chop barley now. I’ve never chopped barley before — do you think it’ll turn out?”
Given how the Haiglers have managed and met other challenges in recent years, no doubt their barley silage will turn out just fine.
by Karl H. Kazaks