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Southwest Dairy Day Highlights Newest Technology

18 May 2009

US - A rotating milking parlor, weeping-wall manure-settlement basin, cross-ventilated dairy barns that work like huge swamp coolers - all were features at a Texas AgriLife Extension Service Southwest Dairy Day held May 8 near Dublin.

More than 600 people and 70 agricultural business vendors attended the event, which was hosted by the Sierra Dairy, said Dr. Todd Bilby, AgriLife Extension dairy specialist.

Owned by the Vander Horst family, the Sierra Dairy milks 3,500 cows twice daily; fresh cows, four times a day, with a production ranging from 57-65 pounds of milk per cow per day, Bilby said.

"Alan Vander Horst has opened up his dairy, which is one of the state-of-the-art facilities in Texas," Bilby said. "You can see a lot of things here that are state-of-the art, including a 60-cow rotary-milking parlor and a three-way cross-breeding program."

The rotary milking parlor is an 80-foot stainless steel carrousel and makes one complete rotation in about 7 minutes, said Alan Vander Horst.

The system makes it possible to milk cows more quickly and in greater comfort, Vander Horst said.

Not only is it more efficient, but after the first couple of times on it, the cows seem to really enjoy the ride, he said.

"They actually try to crowd one another out to get on," Vander Horst said. "Once they're on they're as happy as a dog getting a ride in a pickup truck."

Attendees were also treated to a bus tour of Sequoia Calves, which is the only cross-ventilated cow barn in the U.S.," Bilby said.

"The facility has more than 1,000 calves under one roof," Bilby said. "It has no cooling pads on one side, it's just open ventilation."

Other barn designs use fans to move air lengthwise and the sides are left open or draped (also called open free-stall barns). Cross ventilation barns are closed on all four sides and the air is pulled through pads in which water flows, a large-scale version of what are commonly known as swamp coolers, Bilby said. The design means greater cow comfort as the blown air keeps the cows cooler and can reduce the negative effects of summer heat.

Another state-of-the-art feature on the dairy tour was the weeping-wall manure-management system. A 3,500-cow dairy produces a lot of liquid and solid manure and it must be managed and recycled properly, said Dr. Saqib Mukhtar, AgriLife Extension waste-management engineer, College Station. The first step is to separate the solids from the manure slurry as it is flushed out of the barns. This allows recycling of the separated effluent to be reused for flushing manure alleys.

Some liquid-solid separation systems are energy intensive and require pumping of flushed manure from free-stall alleys to a mechanical system where the solids are screened out, then the effluent is conveyed back to a lagoon and recycled for flushing and irrigation, he said.

The weeping-wall system installed at Seirra Dairy uses a wide, long and deep sedimentation basin instead, and gravity does much of the work, he said.

The Sierra Dairy has two eight-foot deep weeping-wall systems. One has four chambers, with each chamber about 40-feet wide and 300-feet long. The secondary weeping wall consists of two chambers, each about 40-feet wide and 80-feet long.

"The chamber walls have weep holes in them that can be anywhere from a half inch to one inch, and the flushed manure from the barns is conveyed to these weeping-wall systems," Mukhtar said. "The liquid goes into one or two chambers of the weeping wall."

For this dairy, after solids separate out in the first weeping wall, the liquid is pumped from a small holding pond to the secondary weeping wall, he said.

"Then the effluent is conveyed back to the lagoons where it is used to flush manure from the barns," he said.

Though the weeping-wall system was well-designed and a good fit for Sierra Dairy, despite what salesmen may tell, it's not for everyone, Mukhtar said.

"Not everyone needs one of these," he said. "I can tell you this because I'm not selling these systems. I work for Texas AgriLife Extension, not for the manufacturer."

Mukhtar is the lead organizer for the upcoming Texas Animal Manure Management Issues Conference, set Sept. 29-30 at Round Rock in Austin area. For more information on the conference see http://grovesite.com/tamu/tammi/.

Texas dairies have seen some big changes in the way they operate in the last decade, becoming ever more efficient and environmentally wise, Bilby said.

"Dairy is a business, and 90 to 95 percent of the farms in the U.S. are still family owned," he said. "But it's a fact that they have had to become more aggressive to keep their businesses alive. And they had to keep up with technologies to do that. Utilizing those technologies allow us to get more milk per cow and that allows us to feed more of the population."

Though Texas dairy farms have become more efficient, as with other farming operations, they have been hit hard by energy costs and the current economic downturn, said Dr. Ellen Jordan, AgriLife Extension dairy specialist based in Dallas.

"Right now it's costing producers more to produce milk than what they receive for the milk they sell," Jordan said. "We're hoping that we will have some recovery in prices by the fall. If not, we're going to see a significant number of our producers that do go out of business."

If a large number of producers go out of business, in the long term it will cut supplies of milk and cause prices to rise, not only to the producers but to consumers too, she said. Eventually, a balance will be reached.

Jordan expected milk prices to consumers to be up some this fall, but not as high as they were last fall. The actual price will depend upon which variety the consumer chooses.

"Producers now receive a little over $1 a gallon while last year the price they received approached $2 per gallon," she said. "We don't expect it to go back to that range, which occurred when the price of gasoline was $4 gallon. Producers are losing money now, so they do need more for the milk they produce. That way they can make a living and take the best care of their cows that they possibly can."

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