The cows are housed in one of two tunnel-ventilated freestall barns at Hunter Haven Farms in Pearl City, Illinois.
Photo courtesy of Illinois Milk Producers Association
The cows are housed in one of two tunnel-ventilated freestall barns at Hunter Haven Farms in Pearl City, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Illinois Milk Producers Association

    PEARL CITY, Ill. – The Illinois Milk Producers Association hosted a virtual Dairy Tech Tour of Hunter Haven Farms near Pearl City which was hosted by Scott Brenner July 1.
    Hunter Haven Farms is a 925-cow dairy located in northwestern Illinois. The farm was established in 1976 by the Block family. The herd of registered Holsteins has expanded over the past 45 years to the current size and is operated by Scott Brenner. The Block family set the farm up as a corporation in 1997, and each area of the farm is its own LLC, which has allowed for an easier transition from the Block family to Brenner.

    “We are focusing on the dairy aspect of the operation right now,” Brenner said. “The way it is set up allows us to cash rent the land and equipment. Once the dairy is paid for, then we can move on to the rest.”
    The cows are milked three times a day in a double-12 parlor with each milking taking seven hours to complete. The herd is averaging 97 pounds of milk per cow per day while running a 4% fat average and a protein average of 3.18%.
    All of the forages fed are grown on nearly 2,000 acres. Half of the acres are devoted to corn production each year, with about 825 being used for corn silage and the remaining used for grain. Approximately 400 acres of alfalfa are grown for haylage. The farm harvests four crops each year to produce the tonnage needed. Brenner also raises soybeans as part of his dairy ration. Wheat is raised to provide straw in the ration, and the grain is sold as a cash crop.
    The farm has a methane digester to create bedding for the farm as well as heat for the water for both the digester and the dairy.
    “If you follow the manure as it comes out of the cow, we scrape to the flume in the center of each barn,” Brenner said. “From there, it is flushed to a collection pit and then transferred to the digester. Manure is scraped and beds are prepped three times a day each time the cows leave to go to the parlor.”
    Brenner said the dry matter bedding works well if it is dry enough.
    “The drier you can get it, the better it works,” he said. “With our system, I can get it consistently to 42% and that works well. If we get down to 35%, then we have problems. The damp wet times of the year are the biggest challenges.”
    Brenner compared managing the digester system to managing a cow.
    “If you feed it like a cow, it will give you a consistent product,” Brenner said. … “If you treat it like a cow, it’s a very simple system. If you treat it like a piece of equipment, you are going to be frustrated.”
    The digester produces more bedding than is required for the herd, and Brenner said they sell about 17 tons of material each week to a neighboring dairy.
    The cows are housed in two freestall barns. Fresh bedding is added to the stalls four to five times a week.
    Tunnel ventilation was added to the original freestall barn, which houses 450 cows, about 10 years ago.
    “We really found some positive things from that,” Brenner said. “We have a more controlled environment. We gained some cooling capacity in the summer but also having a much nicer environment for the cows in the winter. I think we see as much benefit in the winter with our tunnel barn as we do in the summertime.”
    Brenner is working to complete the tunnel ventilation process in a second barn because of the benefits he has seen in the original barn.
    “Our goal is to have 7 to 9 mph wind speeds throughout the barn,” Brenner said. “We want to shift away from soaking the cows in the barns for cooling. We are getting concerned about water usage and the effectiveness of the water we use.”
    Cows will continue to be soaked in the holding area, but once in the barn, Brenner hopes to keep them comfortable with wind speed over the bunks and stalls.
    “We want wind over the bunk where they are eating and over the stalls where they are laying,” Brenner said. “It is not real critical to have wind in the drive-thru feed aisle or over the manure alley. You don’t want the cows standing in the manure alley. You either want them eating or laying down.”
    The fans set in the peaks run 24 hours per day. The lower fans, as well as the series of basket and panel fans throughout the barns, are run on thermostats.
    Younger cows are housed in the original freestall barn, while older cows are housed in the new barn with larger 50-inch stalls.
    Brenner keeps his first-lactation cows grouped together to alleviate social pecking order problems between younger and older cows. The only time first lactation and mature cows are housed together is for about three weeks in the fresh pen, which Brenner keeps stocked at 80% to alleviate competition.  
    Keeping close tabs on his heifer inventory has been an important cost-control measure for Brenner. Heifers are bred twice with sexed semen and then serviced to beef. About 25% of the milking cows are bred with sexed semen, and the remainder are bred with beef to increase the value of both the heifer and bull calves.
    All heifers are sent to a grower in Kansas, and Brenner began sending newborn calves to a calf raiser. Brenner said removing himself from the day-to-day duties of raising the heifers makes it easier to set parameters for what animals join the milking herd and which ones are culled.
    In Brenner’s mind, being successful in today’s dairy industry requires a constant evaluation of a farm’s position and what is working or not working.
    “Know where you are; know where you need to be,” he said. “If you can lock in your costs, do it. That’s the smart thing to do whether you’re milking 50 cows or 5,000 cows. Some things you can’t do anything about, but maybe you have to tear things apart and start over. Just because you’ve done something the same way for 25 years doesn’t make it right.”