September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
McNallys find happiness in reduced herd size
In the 1990s Doug and his wife, Peggy, were milking about 80 cows in a 50 stanchion barn near Monona, Iowa, along with the help of Doug's dad, Ted. In 1996, they put in a double-10 parallel parlor and started milking about 200 cows.
They continued to go along with the whole "bigger is better" mentality. They continued to increase their facilities, and by 2000 they were milking 375 cows.
There was more feed to grow, more manure to deal with, and more employees to find, train and retain, and all the stress that went along with these things.
Although their daughters, Danielle (23), and Samantha (16), were involved in the dairy 100 percent, there was a lot of stress on the family to keep up with their larger farm.
"We got to the point where we were not getting farther ahead, and we knew that was not the path we wanted to take," McNally said.
Their herd average went from 23,000 pounds before expansion to 19,000. Herd health was not where they wanted it to be. They were up to about a 15 percent calf loss. They were treating at least one calf a week for pneumonia.
"It felt like I was always sticking something with a needle to treat it for something," he said.
To say they were frustrated would be an understatement.
"We needed to admit that we had a problem," McNally said. "We got to the point that it was just ridiculous and we had to figure out what to do differently."
After about seven years as a larger dairy, they made an uncommon decision: They decided to scale back.
"With the higher numbers we couldn't care for the cows the way we wanted to," he said. "I loved the cattle too much to let it stay like that."
Over the last five years, they have heavily culled cows from their herd, and made some other management changes as well.
They are currently milking 200 cows, and their herd average is back up to 21,000 pounds. The number of DAs are down, the pregnancy rate is up, both of which McNally credits to simply being able to pay more attention to each cow.
Their somatic cell count is way down, too. They went from averaging 300,000 with a larger herd to averaging 140,000 the last six months. With fewer people milking, mastitis is caught sooner, as well as having more consistent milking practices.
Having fewer people milking the cows is also helpful to the cows' udder health, McNally said.
Although many things have remained the same, such as the calf housing, washed lime used for bedding used in the freestall barn and the teat dips, McNally said many small things have added up to positive results.
"We stopped listening to the big companies and listened more to local people and businesses," he said.
They simplified the way the feed their cows.
"We went back to our local feed mill and went back to the basics of giving a ruminant animal what it needs," he said.
They added a product called Dairy Boost made by, a Waukon company. They credit that for some of the improvements on their dairy, because it has improved the animals' immune systems. All animals on their farm receive the product - calves, milking cows and steers.
They also increased the consistency of regular application of the washed lime bedding. They put down about an inch on their rubber mattresses every four weeks. They have used washed lime for a number of years, and are very happy with it. It has a consistency like talcum powder and is the waste product of gravel washing/ production. It is very hard for bacteria to grow in the medium, and it limes the fields when the manure is hauled out.
"If someone doesn't want to go to sand, this is the way to go," he said. "It's nice to work with. The trucking to get it to the farm is actually more than the product itself."
"We are very content with our size now," he said.
Doug and Peggy have a flexible full time employee, Harry Henning, and their nephew, Josh Woods, is now working on the farm full-time, working his way into the operation. They have a few high school part-time milkers.
"Everything got easier when the animals got healthy," Peggy said.
The McNallys really struggled for a while with the calves and often had calves they lost posted by the vet, but it was never just one thing. Once they were able to boost the calves' immune system with better nutritional supplements, the susceptibility to illness was significantly reduced.
Woods has worked on the farm most of his life.
"I like working with the cattle and doing maintenance work," he said.
He previously worked as a powersports mechanic, but often was on the farm before and after work. He was interested in working full time on the farm about the same time Doug's dad, Ted, was interested in doing less.
With the smaller milking herd, McNallys were able to bring home the heifers they were farming out, increase the number of steers there were raising for fat cattle, and have corn and dry hay left over to sell instead of feeding the dairy herd.
When Doug's parents purchased the farm in 1980 there was about 240 acres. Over the years as land around them came up for sale or rent, they picked up what they could. They now operate about 900 acres.
The McNallys said they like having diversity to supply their income as it gives them more of a safety net if prices are down in one area.
"I am more content in my life right now than I ever have been," Doug said. "It is easier for us to get away from the farm and we don't have as much to worry about."
He also said part of his happiness is that they surround themselves with people they can trust and call on when needed when things get tough.
Danielle McNally is now a patrol office with the Dubuque Police Department and is attending the police academy. She returns home to help on the farm whenever she can.
Samantha attends MFL MarMac High School.[[In-content Ad]]
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