June 13, 2016

Is Smaller Smarter?

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

For decades, the unquestioned rule in dairy facility design was bigger was better, more efficient and more banker-friendly. More cows meant lower costs and, presumably, more profit. But as new greenfield dairies approach and exceed 6,000 cows, some of those efficiencies might be fading.

Simply acquiring enough land—thousands of acres to support feed production and manure disposal—is daunting. In the western half of the U.S., water must be bought, running as high as $4 million for water rights alone for a new dairy. Even out West, with its once wide-open spaces and live-and-let-live mindset, neighbors aren’t as neighborly when a large open-lot dairy moves next to their back 640.

These pressures are starting to dictate how new dairies will be sized and built, says Tom Haren, CEO of AGPROfessionals, Greeley, Colo., who has spent 20 years helping dairies relocate and build. He points to three trends: Smaller facilities that are easier to site and build Complete wastewater treatment that cuts storage needs and logistics Technology and robotics that reduce labor and improve cow care For all those reasons and more, Haren says his average new project is now 3,500 cows.

Greenfield dairies have a minimum of 1,800 cows. “Four out of every five dairy development projects are now enclosed,” he says. They’re typically one large cross-vent barn that can be on as few as 10 acres. Large open-lot dairies need 150 to 200 acres for the facility and wastewater lagoons, and thousands of acres for feed and manure disposal. “It’s difficult to find suitable sites at this scale,” Haren says.

While that might be true, climate and location still will play a large role in what kind of dairies are built and where, says Jake Martin, CEO of JGM Consulting Agricultural Engineers, Gainesville, Fla. Martin has designed dairy facilities globally for almost 25 years. He agrees 3,000 to 3,500 cows tend to max out a parlor. Consolidating enough land for even that size dairy, when it often takes several acres per cow to produce enough feed, can be a challenge. In the southeastern U.S., cross-vent barns don’t work well, he says, so he’s still designing opensided, naturally ventilated barns for clients there. On the other hand, with smaller totally enclosed facilities, everything gets easier. It’s easier to find land and control runoff from rainfall. Large dairies often take two building seasons to complete. But with smaller enclosed barns, the building goes up quickly and can be enclosed faster.

That allows concrete and finish work to be done even during cold months. Construction can be reduced from as long as 18 months to less than 12. “The second big change I see coming is wastewater treatment,” Haren says. “Some dairies pay $2 million to $4 million for water rights and more than $1 million on the back end for storage. “When these costs converge, we will be doing full-scale wastewater treatment and recycling. Lagoons will go away, and that even changes our location choices for siting dairies,” Haren says. Dairies are already using one or more parts of a wastewater treatment system, and in the next 10 to 20 years, dairies will have all the components to completely recycle nutrients and filtrate water into potable condition. The water and byproducts will pay for the system and more, Haren says. “The third and most important change: robotics and automation,” he says.

Many large dairies are waiting for robotic milking rotaries to solve their labor challenges. But Haren believes robotic box milkers will have a place in new construction of 2,000- and 3,000-cow facilities. The robots offer new opportunities. There will no longer be a need for a milking center, holding pen, drover lanes, milking labor, cow pushers or a host of other management worries. “We will have to unlearn a lot of current thinking,” he says. However, Martin isn’t sold on robotic box milkers for large herds. Moving milk and vacuum from point A to point B with multiple boxes in a 3,000- cow barn with 60 robots is a challenge. “The complexity gets to be an issue,” he says. Still, it’s clear the same assumptions that have driven the development of mega dairies aren’t as straightforward today. Not only dairy farmers but the whole U.S. dairy industry are well advised to take note. “This will change the way bankers need to think. A lot more places that have been diffi cult, expensive, unwanted or off-limits will become potential sites for dairy farms,” Haren says. “We will move back into areas we left 10 or 20 years ago.”