With quickly changing rules and regulations, as well as the increasing focus on quality sustainable farming systems, technology, milk prices and effluent management, it’s worth investigating how indoor dairy farming solutions could help you stay ahead of the game.
For the purposes of this article, we’re talking about off-paddock cow housing systems (e.g. freestall barns, compost barns etc.) rather than the actual process of milking. So what are the benefits of providing a herd with shelter and why can it be such a contentious topic?
A well-designed indoor solution/barn provides cows with a comfortable place to lie down, protection from the elements and free access to a well-balanced diet.
So what are the main benefits of housing cows indoors?
Save your pastures from damage caused by trampling, especially during winter when the ground is wet. There’s a cost saving element to this as it means not having to renovate pastures every year and having them ready and lush for when the cows are back on pasture. We’ve seen the results for ourselves on a recent farm visit in the Waikato. Not only did this farm use less fertilizer, their paddocks were very healthy with very little pugging or other damage.
Keeping your herd warm, fed and “happy” can lead to milking further into the winter season. At the aforementioned Waikato farm, since building their compost barn, the per cow production has increased from 380kg milk solids/cow to 550kg, a staggering 44% increase!
Like us humans, when it’s too hot or too cold, cows get stressed out and stress leads to illness and lower performance. Allowing your herd to have shelter means they are healthier, better rested, producing more and ready to breed. Again, we have seen the results for ourselves. At Valley Venture Farms in Oregon, USA (read about our trip here) their cull rate dropped from 33% to 20% since using a compost barn. And at Wageningen University & Research Centre in The Netherlands (read about our trip here) cows spend 5 months indoors from November-March and the average barn cow liveweight was 600-700kg, 50kg heavier than the paddock cows.
Having the herd in one easy to access spot also means you’ll be able to keep much better records on each individual animal and illness is spotted and treated much quicker.
Maintain optimum weight by setting your own feed levels based on a reliable, quality supply of feed. Any changes in eating habits are quickly spotted and rectified. Indoor solutions also help to save costs on feed wastage.
Some indoor cow housing systems, such as a Dairy Barn System from Calder Stewart, allows you to take control of effluent and future proof against changing regulations. Nitrates in the soil and run-off into waterways is one of the biggest challenges facing our industry so this is a huge benefit not only for the individual farmer but our sector as a whole.
More often than not there is the possibility that effluent and used bedding materials can be utilised for crop or pasture application when conditions are right.
Having a state-of-the-art built asset improves the value of your business.
Different cows prefer different things so allowing them access to pasture when they want a bit of outdoor time is ideal. A study conducted in Canada by The University of British Columbia to better understand if and how cows value access to pasture, allowed the animals to vote with their feet.
Here is an extract from an article on the findings:
“In this study, 25 late-lactation cows, tested in groups of five, had free access to either a freestall barn or to pasture immediately adjacent to the barn.
At the start of the experiment cows were kept inside the barn or outside on pasture for 2 days each, after which cows were given free access to both options for 3 days. Each group of cows was tested three times from May through July under a range of climatic conditions.
Which did the cows prefer? The answer is both! When cows had the choice, they spent about 46 per cent of the day indoors, especially on warmer days. They spent the majority of their time outside during the night between afternoon and morning milkings. Cows were most likely to prefer to be indoors on warm days (i.e. more than 20ºC).
This study indicates that cows do not have an overall preference for either a well-designed freestall barn or for pasture; instead preference varies depending on the time of day and environmental conditions.”