Switch it up

Ten years ago, a new chapter in our dairy farming story began: switching cows through the winter. Prior to that, we had often milked more cows than the barn could hold during the summer while the herd is on pasture, but we always downsized to fit in the barn for the winter.
For many dairy farmers who milk in tiestall barns, switching cows year round is a necessary evil. The extra milk in the tank is necessary, but the extra work can be evil. Over the past decade, we’ve found ways to make it less evil.
1. Gates, gates, and more gates. Gates are one of the most important components of a successful switching system. We have two sets of gates inside the barn. We use them like locks and dams to help usher cows into stalls. We also use portable corral gates to divide our cow yard into two sections. The inside cows go in one section while the outside cows come in for milking. (We use these sections for dividing the herd into milking groups during the summer, too.)
We only have one hard and fast rule for switching cows: Don’t mix the groups! Gates make following that rule a whole lot easier.
2. Switch cows around. For the most part, during the winter our inside cows are first lactation Holsteins and Jerseys; our outside cows are older, larger Holsteins. But if a particular cow doesn’t do well in the inside group, we move her to the outside group. Conversely, we had one outside cow last winter who decided that laying half in and half out of a sand stall was more comfortable than laying properly in the stall; she quickly became an inside cow.
3. Housing makes a huge difference. For nine winters, our outside cows rested on an outdoor bedded pack. Last winter we moved them into sand-bedded freestalls. The difference between a bedded pack and sand stalls is night and day. Our cows are now cleaner, they milk more, and prep time during milking is a fraction of what it used to be.
To be honest, when Glen first suggested building a sand-bedded freestall barn, I didn’t immediately understand his vision. I couldn’t see how we’d fit the barn in the space he had identified, which was a small open area between our dry cow/hay shed and our manure lagoon. But I trusted that his idea would work and, boy, did it ever. We both wish we would have switched to sand ten years earlier.
Now that we’ve got a full year of sand barn use behind us, we’ve already added another row of stalls. We’re also experimenting with outside sand stalls in the courtyard between the sand barn and tiestall barn. So far, the cows seem to really like the outside stalls – at least during the day when they can bask in the sun.
4. Milking order matters. For the past ten winters, we milked the inside cows first, switched the groups, milked the outside cows, and then brought the inside cows back in. Two weeks ago, after morning milking, when the cows decided the weather was too nasty to go out to pasture, we let the first group into the sand barn and kept the second group in the barn for the day. When evening milking came around, it didn’t make sense to milk the second group first, so we let them out and brought the first group in. And, then, we just kept that milking order: let the inside cows out, milk the outside cows first, switch the groups, and milk the inside cows last.
What we discovered after a couple days is that this milking order is way better than the order we used to follow. The time required for milking and switching is about the same, but the psychology is a lot better with the new way. In the past, we’d get done milking and then still have to let the outside cows out, clean stalls, re-bed, and bring the inside cows back in. Now, since all of that is done before and during milking, when we get done milking, we can shut the lights off and go to the house.
If there’s one lesson we’ve learned well in our years of dairy farming, it’s to always be open to change. Don’t keep doing things one way because that’s the way you’ve always done it. Even when you think something is going well, there’s almost always a way to do it better.
Switching from the pack to sand stalls was a big decision with a huge impact. Switching our milking order was a small change – that was hardly a conscious decision at all – with an outsized impact. Both changes definitely made switching cows better. We could have easily missed these opportunities for improvement if we hadn’t been open to switching things up.
Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 100 cows near Melrose, Minnesota. They have three children – Dan, Monika, and Daphne. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at sadiefrericks@gmail.com


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