by Sally Colby

Each year, the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, the Center for Dairy Excellence and Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association recognize dairy farmers who represent outstanding management and industry achievement.

In recognition of their innovative achievements, Donny and Shari Bartch, owners of Merrimart Farms LLC in Perry County, PA, were recently awarded the Pennsylvania Distinguished Dairy Producer Award at the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit.

Donny Bartch grew up helping a neighbor dairy farmer, and although he enjoyed his time on the farm, he didn’t view dairy farming as a possible future career. He also didn’t know his future wife would be a fourth-generation dairy farmer.

At about the time Donny and his wife Shari celebrated their first wedding anniversary, Shari’s father and uncle asked the couple if they were interested in joining the Merrimart Farms partnership. “We had been milking in the evenings,” said Donny, “so we had been involved a little bit, but it was more relief help.”

That was 18 years ago. “Shari’s father Keith did well with the cows,” said Donny. “He was in charge of the cows and his brother Eddie managed the crops.” Keith passed away not long after Donny and Shari joined the partnership, which gave Donny the opportunity to take the farm in the direction he wanted to go. “It was a heartbreaking tragedy,” Donny recalled, “but it gave me a chance to grab hold of what was placed in front of me.”

The current free-stall barn was constructed in the mid-1980s, and Donny said the stalls are small and short – 48 inches on center. “I can’t have big, typey show cows here,” he said. “They just don’t fit. I found that maintenance on more compact animals is less – there’s a lot less cow to maintain.”

Technology for better dairy farming

(L – R) Madison, Shari, Donny, Erinn and Lane Bartch of Merrimart Farms in Perry County, PA, were recently awarded the Pennsylvania Distinguished Dairy Producer Award. Photo courtesy of the Bartch family

The Bartches currently milk the 260-cow herd on a three-times milking schedule and have been considering putting in a robotic milking system for several years. They visited farms with robots in place and were satisfied with the information they gathered online and through webinars. About this time last year, the family started the planning process and hope to move into the robotic system by late 2022.

The age of the existing double-10 herringbone parlor, built in 1993, was one factor in the decision to switch to robots. The robotic system will include four robots, but Donny will continue to milk a group of cows in the parlor. “The parlor is in good shape, and we upgraded about 10 years ago with new monitors and take-offs,” he said. “But when we saw the opportunity to add robots, I tried to be forward thinking – I really don’t want to rust out. We want to make improvements before we’re put into a corner and have to make improvements because something’s falling apart.”

With the robotic system eliminating most parlor milking at Merrimart Farms, Donny predicted he’ll have more time to focus on the cows. He credits his workforce, both full-time and part-time high school students, for working together as a team to keep the dairy operating smoothly. “My partner Eddie and his sister Jill, who milks twice a day for us and does some of the herd management – none of us are getting younger,” said Donny. “We’re looking for an opportunity to take some of the stress from the day-to-day work and supplement that with more management.”

The new robot barn will be for high-production, low days in milk cows. Any late lactation cows or those that aren’t suited for robotic milking will be milked twice a day in the existing parlor. “I see myself slowly growing into a new facility,” said Donny. “I’m not sure I want to take 240 cows into it right away. It’s a matter of me learning how to manage differently.”

Robotics will also give the next generation an opportunity to become involved with technology. At ages 15, 13 and 11, the Bartch children are old enough to start thinking about whether they want to stay on the farm. “Shari and I are both open-minded,” said Donny. “We don’t want to push this farm on any of our kids. We understand that you have to love the dairy business – if you just like it, it’s going to be miserable.”

Adding a robotic milking system won’t be the first automation innovation on Merrimart Farms. Six years ago, the Bartches installed a robotic calf feeding system, which Donny said sparked their robotic milking decision. “It taught me a lot about how to walk away from a new calf and let it learn to drink from the feeder,” he said. “I don’t have to be there 24 hours a day. Give them a little time and they get hungry enough to find it and eat. We’re seeing very good results from the system.”

The cows are equipped with activity monitors, and heifers will soon be added to the monitoring system. Donny said he appreciates the technology that allows him to check animals with information sent directly to his phone. “We can address an issue before it becomes an issue,” he said. “We’re going out just twice a day.”

In addition to raising their own replacement heifers, the Bartches feed 150 dairy steers each year. Donny said the robotic calf feeding system has provided such a good start for calves that finishing time for steers is reduced by 30 to 45 days. “We were group feeding calves before, but it was still two quarts twice a day,” he said. “Now they peak at 10 quarts and we’re weaning at 50 days.” He added that weaned calves aren’t necessarily larger but are packed with muscle and ready to go on feed.

As Donny selects bulls for AI, he’s aiming for a shorter, stockier, commercial-type cow with positive fat and protein. “We also keep an eye on feet and legs, and now as we’re in the planning phase for robotics, making sure udders are correct.” Heifers are calving at 22 to 24 months, and Donny said after having a strong start as calves, heifers are larger and broader with fewer calving issues that require assistance.

The Bartches grow crops on about 1,000 acres for ingredients that go into a balanced TMR, and also do some custom crop work. Merrimart Farms has been 100% no-till since the 1980s. “We have cover crops on all the ground,” said Donny. “We always want something growing. We limit cows’ access to streams and use our agronomist to help optimize fertilizer applications so we don’t apply more than we need and make sure it stays where we want it. I don’t want any nutrients or sediment running to the Chesapeake Bay.” He added he’d like to see farmers receive credit for practices that protect soil and water and prevent nutrient runoff.

Marrying into a dairy family has given Donny a unique perspective on passing on the farm, and he’s open to the idea that the next generation may not be within the family. “If we find someone who’s passionate about it,” he said, “I’d have no problem teaching them and turning it over to them.”