Dairy Excel: The future is now, but who knows exactly what to do about it?

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A guy shines a flashlight up into his face in a darkened room singing in a high falsetto voice “…in the year 2000 … in the year 2000 …”

If you have ever been up late with insomnia, waiting to check on a calving in progress, or in my case, actually getting around to the farm bookkeeping or writing a column, you might have seen this fairly regular skit on the late, late night talk show hosted by Conan O’Brien (it comes on after Leno).

Even though it is now 2001, they continue the skit. After each round of singing, O’Brien announces some new technology or off-the-wall activity of a famous or infamous person. If the next session were focused on the dairy industry, what would O’Brien say?

Dairymen invest millions in new technology – and then get cows to exit with a garden hose…

Well, the future is now. I even took a picture of it when visiting dairies in southern California in 1999. Our tour guides planned a quick stop at a dairy to check out a rotary parlor because several of us had not seen one.

Actually, we had to stop at two dairies because we wanted to see one working. The first dairy (which will remain anonymous,) was in the middle of milking, but the rotary part had decided to take a break (literally). The manager predicted at least an hour or two before the crew could get back to milking. Yes, there were cows cooling their heels on the platform that were going to be there for awhile.

The second parlor was much newer, so new in fact, that the installer was there fine tuning the timing. This dairy had hundreds of Jerseys that were smartly stepping up to the platform after a prewash. The cows stepped straight into a stall and the only milker for 30-something stalls quickly prepped them from between the back legs and tossed on the milking unit. The cows then commenced their ride around the carousel.

The whole setup was in a huge, light, airy building, nicely ventilated, snappy observation deck surrounding the whole thing and a glassed-in observation deck on the far wall.

The cows stood nicely as the carousel turned, a chain automatically latched behind them so they didn’t step back. The platform didn’t stop to let cows off, but each cow had to continually step off backward and continue out of the way so the next cow could step off.

To prepare for exit, the chain behind the cow automatically dropped off shortly before the cow’s stall lined up with the exit platform and then…. just as a cow’s stall approached the critical point… you could see a garden hose wired up to squirt a steady stream of water right into her eye.

They backed out. Fast.

In fact, being Jerseys and slightly smarter than the average cow, they started blinking their eyes and turning their heads away from the upcoming eye rinse at about the same time the chain dropped down behind them.

It seemed anticlimactic somehow, the precisely timed functions of a million dollar system hinging on the precise aim of a $5 section of green garden hose.

Dairymen finally rip the sides off of barns – but don’t know what to do next.

1970s: Keep the outside air out and the inside air in. No eave or ridge openings, insulate like crazy, minimize door openings, put one 18-inch exhaust fan at the end of the building. Medicate cows and calves regularly for pneumonia.

Late 1970s: Calves discovered to need fresh air and bedding. Cut legs off of elevated stalls. Better yet, build little white plywood huts and line them up along the driveway. One calf per hut preferred. Calf mortality drops dramatically.

1980s: Cut 2-foot wide openings the length of the cow barn and prop them open part of the year. Close if the weather radio predicts rain in the next two days. Make sure they are at least 6 feet above the cow when she is laying down so she doesn’t get a draft (a.k.a. “fresh air”). Don’t worry about removing excess insulation, it rotted out five years ago.

1990s: Rip the whole side off the barn and put up curtains. If building new, 14- to 16-foot sidewalls and curtains everywhere you can get one in.

Built yourself into a challenging ventilation situation? Consider plastering one end wall with fans for tunnel ventilation. Sprinklers and fans, fans and sprinklers.

2000s: Tired of watching 100 cows stand in 40 feet of feed alley and not use the 95 stalls at the other end of the barn until 3 p.m. on warm, sunny days?

I really wish I knew the answer to this one, because cows are doing this in barns with fans, sprinklers, nice clean stalls and plenty of feed and water. Should we strategically place loosely woven shade cloth to block intense morning light in the hot summer months but still allow some air flow?

No, the cows didn’t do this in tie stall barns, but they really didn’t have the option, did they?

Dairymen must make decisions in the context of positively impacting their cost of production… but what is it?

Pre-1980s: work hard in the barn and prosper.

Post-1980s: work hard in the barn and the farm office and prosper.

It is not too late to make a jump into the 2000s. What are your dairy’s costs of production? Since you are spending time with numbers (love those income taxes!), now is a good time to start this process if it is not one of your regular practices.

Afraid you don’t have good enough records to start with? Contact me for a worksheet to get started with some very basic income tax and balance sheet type numbers. It is a relatively painless way to get started, and then work into a more sophisticated and ultimately more accurate and useful system.

In the year 2000… the great thing about dairy folks are your combinations of dedication, smarts, caring and innovation. Whatever challenges we face, there will be a variety of solutions – some great, some best forgotten – but developed and shared for the benefit of all.

(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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