Cow Comfort: Happy Cows = More Milk

Published on Wed, 08/24/2016 - 4:20pm

By Charlie Rahm, USDA

    In Polk County Missouri, dairy farmer Nelson Hostetler can think of a ton of reasons to like his new confined dairy shed and animal waste system. The most obvious reasons are documented in Hostetler’s daily production log. It shows that the 100 cows that formerly resided in a couple of pastures are producing about 2,000 more pounds of milk each day since they were brought inside less than a year ago.

“We’re right at 20 pounds more per cow today than we were a year ago,” Hostetler said. “When we built this, we said we had to get six more pounds (for the investment to pay). I expected it to work well, but it’s working better than I expected.”What Hostetler built, with design and financial assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is a completely covered structure in which the cows rest in stalls bedded with a thick layer of sand. The structure has curtains that can be opened or closed depending on the outside temperature. When the cows want to eat or drink, they leave their stalls and walk across concrete alleys to get to the food and water. It’s also a short walk to the milking barn.The alleys are part of a flush system in which water is released from large, gravity-driven flush tanks. The water washes the animals’ waste and sand that gets kicked out of the stalls to an outside area where the sand settles out and the water and waste enters a gravity solid separator.

The solid waste remains in the separator and the liquid travels through a pipe to a lagoon. The liquid is then pumped from the lagoon back into the tanks for re-use. The sand is pushed into piles where it dries in the sun, and is put back into the stalls. The solid waste is eventually removed from the separator and spread onto Hostetler’s crop fields.The shed includes some cow-friendly amenities, such as a spinning brush that cows can activate to brush off dead hair and stimulate new hair growth. While the cows seem content to eat, drink and lie in the stalls when they are not being milked, Hostetler has plans to build some adjacent exercise pens to allow the cows to go outside when the weather is nice.Hostetler said that not only is each cow producing more milk, but he also has been able to increase his herd size by 25 percent, up to milking about 125 cows per day, without increasing his labor.

Hostetler points to one reason for this increased production. “Cow comfort,” he said. “If it rains or snows out there, these cows can just lie in here in the sand and they don’t need to try to find a tree to lie under. The cows can eat, lie down and rest a few hours and then get up and get some more to eat and drink.”Hostetler said he has also noticed fewer health issues with his cows because the flushed alleys keep them cleaner than when they stood in waste in the feeding area.“The condition of the cows is better than it’s ever been with this much milk,” he said.Though not as obvious as the milk-production benefits, the system also protects the environment by keeping animal waste on-farm, where it is re-used as nutrients instead of washing into streams.“NRCS’ interest is in protecting the quality and healthfulness of the natural resources that everyone needs,” said State Conservationist J.R. Flores. “Situations like Mr. Hostetler’s in which actions taken to protect the environment also improve his operation are great, because everyone benefits.”

NRCS engineers worked with Hostetler to design a system to meet his wishes, while also addressing the resource concerns. Michael Malone, NRCS civil engineer, said he, Hostetler, and NRCS Area Engineer John Feistner visited a number of other dairy farms to get ideas about what would work best at Hostetler’s farm near Louisburg.
“We went through multiple design revisions until we finally found one that fit him,” Malone said.

“What I have is kind of what I always dreamed about,” Hostetler said. “Without (NRCS’) help, we would not have been able to do this. We would have had to do it in small stages.”
Through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), NRCS paid part of the costs of the concrete alleys, flush system, solid waste separator, lagoon and the section of the roof over the alleys. Hostetler said that NRCS financial assistance covered about half of the cost of his new system.Flores said that 60 percent of Missouri’s general EQIP funding goes to livestock operations. In Fiscal Year 2015, NRCS obligated $14.4 million on 500 livestock farms, including beef, dairy, hog and poultry operations.Hostetler said he originally sought NRCS assistance just to install a lagoon. That changed when Malone and Feistner described other options.

The system he ended up with is tons better.