At a recent event held by the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania (PDMP) at Rohrer Dairy Farms in Lancaster, PA, members of the Rohrer family shared their experience of growing their dairy farm with both facilities and family.

Rohrer Dairy Farms started much like other dairy farms in 1956 when Bob Rohrer Sr. milked 25 to 30 cows in a tie-stall barn. Today, the farm is operated by the second and third generations of the family: brothers Bob, Mike and Tony along with cousins Ashlyn, Mitch and Tyler.

Growth of the farm over the years included careful planning of facilities designed for efficiency and cow comfort. Today, the herd includes 1,750 milking cows and 1,700 youngstock.

In 1973, the Rohrers added a tie-stall barn and an eight-cow rotary parlor. “We slowly grew,” said Bob. “We added cows and got up to 250 cows. Then we decided to milk faster.”

The goal of milking faster became a major project. The family installed a temporary pipeline with 16 units in the free-stall barn. “We tore out the eight-stall rotary and put in a double-10 herringbone,” said Bob. “It wasn’t fun but we got used to it.”

The Rohrer brothers rotated night shift duty in order to achieve the thrice-daily milking of the increased herd that now included 375 cows. After observing rapid exit parlors, the family decided to install a double-20 rapid exit parlor.

With a larger herd that needed more space, the Rohrers built a bedded pack barn in 1998. Bob said the pack helped cows last longer, but found the system wasn’t efficient. “By 2005, we had maxed out again, so we built another free-stall barn for 500 head,” he said. “The barn included a bedded pack maternity area.”

Another addition in 2005 was a pasteurizer to process unsaleable milk for feeding calves, so the farm would no longer purchase milk replacer.

“In 2008, we purchased heifers from another farm and built a 400-stall heifer facility so the family could raise replacements on the home farm,” said Bob. “We added silos as needed for additional feed storage. The builder suggested constructing the building so it could be used for mature cows in the future but I said ‘We won’t need that.’”

Bob quickly admitted he was wrong about increasing the size of the new barn. “It’s only 108 feet wide, so it’s a narrow barn,” he said. “That barn was renovated in 2023 for milk cow housing. Some of the changes included 342 free-stalls, LED light fixtures, mattresses, sprinklers and fans.”

Additional improvements at around the same time included new calf barns and housing for young heifers.

About five years ago, the Rohrers knew the parlor was aging. The quickest (although not the most convenient) solution was a new parlor. They reviewed their options and considered rotary systems once again.

Building on a strong foundation

A team of three milkers can efficiently milk cows in the Rohrers’ 60-cow rotary parlor. Photo by Sally Colby

Bob’s son Tyler discussed the decision to add a new rotary parlor as well as transitioning the farm to his generation. “In 2013, I was working here full-time,” said Tyler, explaining the transition to the next generation. “I left the farm and came back in 2019. We had many meetings with family and consultants. We all have different personalities and family dynamics can be tricky to deal with. Communication is the key.”

Tyler said permitting for new structures can take well over a year, but the family had plenty of experience with the process and was prepared for the time it would take to move through all the steps. However, once the family decided to add a rotary parlor, there were delays with permitting as well as backlogs in the supply chain.

Tyler had been involved with maintenance in the parlors since he was in high school; he oversaw the construction for the new build. He toured several facilities to be sure the farm was equipped with the best possible new milking facility. Much of what Tyler selected for the new system was the first of its kind in the state, so everything had to go through an approval process.

“I picked what I wanted, but it had to make sense,” said Tyler. “There were so many details to everything, from sorting areas to the rotary and where the cows would go.”

Rohrer Farms started milking cows in the new system in December 2022. The farm retained the same workforce that had milked cows in the double-20 to milk in the rotary. The 60-stall turns six times in one hour and has a stainless steel deck on which cows stand slightly uphill. Sensors for cow safety are in place where cows get on the rotary and where they get off. If a cow bumps a sensor, the rotary stops.

Information on individual cows’ production including protein and fat is tracked. Milk is chilled quickly and goes directly into tankers.

One immediate benefit of the rotary was the ease of cow flow through the parlor. While the double-20 parlor required people to move groups of cows to and from the parlor, the rotary allows steady movement. Cows are less stressed, and after milking, they can be easily moved back to their housing barn or diverted to a hospital/treatment area. The Rohrers found that the cows adapted quickly to the rotary parlor and maintain a consistently low SCC.

The hospital pen is designed to house pre-fresh and fresh cows, treated cows and any others that require special attention. A portion of the barn includes 90 stalls where pre-fresh cows are placed, for the farm’s “just in time” calving system that includes a dedicated employee who walks through to check cows every 45 minutes.

The calf housing combines the benefits of calf hutches and barn housing by placing hutches under roofs. Calves remain separated to ensure health and to allow employees to monitor milk and feed intake. The barn to which heifers transition after hutches has 14 pens with eight to 10 weaned heifers each.

As they observe cows entering and exiting the new parlor, the Rohrers are pleased with the system as they watch for rough spots and areas for improvement. Tyler prefers to observe the system before making changes in a new facility.

“We know we’re going to struggle to get pound-for-pound production versus a year ago because of transitioning and adding several hundred more animals,” he said. “We’ve had challenges in here, but I want to wait to see how things are over time.”

by Sally Colby