April 25, 2022 at 1:22 p.m.
Milking cows has been a seasonal task for Tim Berning as he found a creative way to deal with the harsh winters in Jo Daviess County, Illinois.
“About five years ago, we had a really bad winter that just seemed to go on forever,” Berning said. “I thought, ‘We need to make some improvements to do something better for the cows, or we need to get rid of the winters.’”
Berning chose the latter and began seasonal calving. He dries his 30 cows up at the end of the year, and the cows freshen in March. Cows are kept in a loose housing facility over the winter, and the stanchion barn sits empty until spring. When spring arrives, the cows are milked in the stanchion barn and sent to pasture.
“This has kept me going without spending a lot of money to upgrade the system,” Berning said.
The first phone call Berning made when planning the management change was to the dairy’s field representative to make sure his milk would continue to be picked up if he took a break. He was told that his Grade A permit would stay in effect for one year whether he was milking or not.
“We start calving in March, and our normal inspection date is always in April anyway,” Berning said. “The quality is there so as soon as we have enough milk in the tank that they’re satisfied to pick up, then we call them and they start picking us up again.”
Berning’s bulk tank is small enough that he only needs about three cows milking to be able to market the farm’s milk.
“The rule is one milking has to reach the agitator, and with our small tank, the agitator is only about 5 inches off the bottom of the tank,” Berning said. “Once it hits, we start shipping. We started shipping the other day here, and we had 500 pounds.”
All of the cows have a two- to three-month dry period which is achieved through timed breeding.
For the first couple years, Berning had to sell some cows at the end of the year that were bred too late. He then replaced them with purchased heifers in the spring.
“We’ve been fortunate to sell to another dairy,” Berning said. “For the first year or two, we bought heifers from a guy to get milk in the tank and get rolling again.”
During the winter, cows are bedded with straw outside. Berning believes he has healthier cows and calves now that they are not kept inside all winter.
“Our cows are definitely in better condition coming into the spring,” Berning said. “Being an older barn, the ventilation wasn’t bad, but it was hard to keep everything dry.”
Calves are housed in converted hog barns in groups of up to four. They are fed whole milk for the first three or four days then switched to milk replacer. Berning keeps a few hutches in a building for smaller calves or severe weather. He also raises extra bull calves which are purchased from a neighboring farm. Those are raised as feeder steers and sold when they reach about 500 pounds.
One of the first things Berning did when switching to seasonal calving was eliminate the drinking cups from his stanchion barn. Too many mornings of discovering that a drinking cup had leaked all night, or a water line had burst due to the cold temperatures, led him to this change.
“The cows are only in here for milking, which is less than an hour, so they don’t really need water in the barn,” Berning said.
Berning does winterize his vacuum pump by running antifreeze through it and will start it up a couple times throughout the winter to keep it in working order. The milkhouse remains heated to avoid any damage from cold weather.
Once the cows freshen, they are turned out to pasture between milkings. Berning manages his pasture by spreading around 100 pounds of nitrogen every spring and using a harrow to spread the manure. He also clips the pasture throughout the summer, keeping it less than 5 inches tall. Berning said it makes better grass which the cows seem to like better. Clipping the pasture also eliminated the thistle population.
“We have a really nice looking pasture, and it’s all those little simple things that we can do that don’t cost anything,” Berning said.
Berning is the second generation to milk cows at his farm, with 50 years of milking experience to his name. His wife, Lynn, works off the farm and his sons, Chad and Dusty, have always helped him farm. Dusty is able to help in the summer and fall, and Chad has started to take over the crop management.
Seasonal calving has kept the farm going for the last five years along with the small setup.
“We just basically stuck with the milking,” Berning said. “We’ve got a small system, and we just always seemed to have made it through.”