by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Are robotic milkers in your dairy’s future? What are your options for installing low-cost milking parlors on your farm? How can you economically transition from a tie stall to a free stall with a low-cost milking parlor? Can you make your dairy more profitable? These were questions that speakers, including Cornell’s ProDairy program financial analyst Jason Karszes, ProDairy’s Kathy Barrett and University of Wisconsin, Professor of Biological Systems Engineering David Kammel, addressed at Central New York’s 2014 Dairy Day.
“It’s an exciting time — especially for the young folks — to see where we are moving with the industry today,” said CNY Cornell Cooperative Extension Dairy Specialist David Balbian. “To see the kind of opportunities with technology and ideas that you can put into practice to be competitive in this business.”
Dr. David Kammel presented some of those ideas on designing and installing low-cost milking parlors in existing barns.
“We know we can save money by retrofitting or remodeling,” said Kammel. He quoted prices for a new 150 cow barn with a new milking parlor compared to what remodeling would cost and showed examples of old barns that had been efficiently remodeled with a saving of 25–50 percent.
Kammel pointed out that the infrastructure is already there and doesn’t need to be recreated.
“My motto is, if we don’t have to touch it, don’t touch it, because it’s just costing money if you touch it.”
When thinking creatively you can save money by utilizing as much of the original equipment as possible.
Kammel commented he’s not saying that it wouldn’t be necessary to upgrade some things when renovating. “Cheaper is not always the key,” he cautioned.
He also discussed budgeting for dairy modernization. Forming a ‘farmstead master plan’ and realizing limitations are important aspects to begin with. “If you don’t plan and you don’t know what’s going on, sometimes the budget goes to heck,” Kammel stated.
Building a new free-stall barn and retrofitting a parlor inside the present stall barn has proved to be a great advantage financially for many farmers.
“The center driveway in a stall barn works well for a holding area, and other parts of the barn can be used for housing extra cows, maternity pens or a special needs work area.”
Kammel reported that dairy producers have saved over $40,000 by using their old stall barn as a milking center. “These cost savings can make a down payment for a new free-stall barn. And the benefits of improved milk production and cow comfort are well documented when moving cows to a new free-stall barn.”
One strategy Kammel mentioned is building in phases instead of all at once. “The ability to phase in milking facility upgrades over time, reduces stress and interest costs.”
Finding contractors and equipment dealers who are willing to work with you is another strategy, while utilizing your own capabilities instead of hiring someone to do work you can do yourself, is another money saver.
Recognizing common goals such as improved quality of life for the farmer and his family, as well as the dairy herd, lead the list as reason for modernizing dairy facilities.
An added bonus is the increase in production that may result from modernization.
“Better comfort for the cows generally improves production,” Kammel reported.
Dr. Jason Karszes, farm management specialist with the Pro-Dairy, spoke to attendees about becoming profitable by focusing on continuous improvements and decision making.
“Focus on preparation,” said Karszes. “How you position the business to take advantage of the next opportunity. New technology, land purchases, management changes, whatever it may be!”
Karszes emphasized recognizing “down cycles” on the farm and how they affect decision making. Learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to make changes. Having a risk management plan is a key.
Knowing your numbers and having an organized business plan for what to do with your profits is essential for building profit. “Set goals! Ask questions!” Karszes advised. “Where do we want to improve? How can we get better?”
Seek input from other key people and develop positive relationships with people your farm is associated with. Value your employees, veterinarians, nutritionists, service providers and anyone who is interacting with the farm. “Can our attitude impact other people’s attitude?” Karszes asked.
Showing a profitability equation, he explained that every business works under the same rule; it needs to make a bigger profit or maintain the profit they are currently making. “Every decision we make on the farm affects this equation.”
When a decision doesn’t work, change it fast or modify it. “Look at performance, not just cost.”
ProDairy’s Kathy Barrett wrapped up the Dairy Day program with information on robotic milkers and how farms are utilizing them to take away the cost and responsibility of hiring more employees. “Flexibility and the quality of life are key factors,” said Barrett. “Not having to be tied to the milking schedule, not having to worry about labor issues — and it’s more attractive to bringing in a younger generation.”
However, due to the cost of retrofitting the barn to accommodate the robots and since there are still many unanswered questions, Barrett suggests asking yourself if you could make another system work just as well.
Concerns include if your existing barn design will allow your cows to be broken up into smaller groups accommodating the robots. Having free access to the robot for milking and being able to freely reenter the herd without human assistance is required. The barn should be situated so that bedding and cleaning can be completed without moving or disturbing the herd.
“Labor efficiency is really the key to making this system profitable,” Barrett said. “It depends on the farm situation.”
Barrett reported that one farm she knew of was able to decrease their staff by seven full time employees.
Training the cows to enter the robotic stall and to stand for the robot may take some time.
Barrett says the system takes some adjusting to for both cows and people. “But, the opportunity is there!”
CNY Dairy Day was hosted and coordinated by the CNY Dairy and Field Crops Team of Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Central NY 2014 Dairy Day ~ looking to the future
by Elizabeth A. Tomlin