EDISON, Ohio — If a cow can truly be happy and merry, then the cows and calves at Harpercrest Dairy are probably some of the happiest in the state.
Take a walk through the freestall barns, the dry cow barns and especially the calf barn, and you’re going to be greeted by curious eyes and a lot of tongue and cheek — cows with open mouths chewing their cud.
Lowering the curtains on the side of the freestall barn is all it takes to get the cows mooing, as they see each other for the first time that day, and dash toward each other as if to greet a friend.
But what really sets the Morrow County farm apart is in the calf barn, where just a couple weeks ago, Stan Harper and his dairy partner, Dave Ertl, installed one of Ohio’s first automated calf feeders.
The machine is actually very simple — a few metal stalls and a metal holding unit that contains and determines the ration each calf receives. An ear tag on each calf is read as it enters the stalls to drink, and the machine emits the kind and volume of milk it gets.
And the calves love it, or at least give every indication they do.
Ertl, 30, and Harper, 55, talked about increased efficiency they could get with a machine, and the benefits to the calves. Since installing the unit, they’ve been giving up on individual calf pens. Now, the calves all run together and have good color, weight and vigor.
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Ertl said it took very little time for the calves to begin using the machine, and said the pens where they had previously been kept have already been sold.
“This seems to be a lot less labor and the calves look a lot like they do when they’re on their mother,” said Harper.
He and Ertl formed a partnership in the fall, after Ertl spent five years as Harper’s herdsman.
The unit was made by DeLaval and installed by Hill’s Supply — a major dairy supply business spread across Ohio.
Hill’s owner, Dave Hill, said calves do better on the machine because they can drink when they want, and they get to interact with other cattle, at an earlier age in their lives.
“It gets them into society,” he said. “They learn how to interact with society right of way.”
Hill said separating calves into individual pens when they’re born results in a pecking order that’s hard to break when they’re later penned together, and have to learn to share the same resources.
The unit at Harpercrest is designed for four pens and can feed 25 calves per pen.
Hill said automated milkers are a good choice for dairies with 100 or more milk cows, or at least 80 calves. Harper and Ertl milk more than 500 cows, with 170 of those belonging to Ertl.
Ertl grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio’s Wayne County, but when he came of age to manage, it was already exiting the industry. That experience led him to pursue an education in animal sciences at Ohio State University, where he graduated in 2003.
Since then, he’s been working with Harper, who one day hopes to sell the full farm to Ertl. They farm about 290 acres and buy about two-thirds of their feed from neighbors, who have large crop farms and grow the farm’s silage.
Ertl handles the day-to-day decisions and when a big decision is made — like buying the calf feeder — the two men talk it out and look at numbers.
“If I see the numbers and they look good, I’m pretty easy to go along with things,” Harper said. “If they make me money, I’m pretty willing.”
The feeder isn’t the only piece of innovation on the farm. They are considering the use of ultrasound machines, have their own hoof trimming setup and use a computer camera to watch what’s going on at other parts of the farm, especially the milking parlor.
If a hired hand isn’t doing something right, “you can correct them,” Ertl said.
The farm employs six full-time workers and also a local high school student, who keeps the barns clean and bedded with straw.
Ertl admits his years in college didn’t teach him all the answers to being a modern dairy farmer, but said it taught him where to go to get answers, and how to network with others in the industry.
He advises beginning farmers, “If you want to farm, you better go to school.”
The farm still uses some older equipment, including a double-10 herringbone milking parlor, but is making upgrades over time. Older farm buildings and sheds have been turned into freestall space and the original hay barn now houses the cows before they’re milked.
Even careful decision-making wasn’t enough the past year, for most dairies, Harper admits. But with improvements in efficiency and systems that improve cow and calf health, Harper and Ertl are giving their farm the most opportunity.