Building a future: Cousins eye tomorrow with new barn, expanded herd

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STONEBORO, Pa. – When first cousins Bryan and Kevin Richael were growing up on the dairy farm their fathers operated, they probably never envisioned how they’d be farming in 2002.

Today, the cousins are owners and partners of Sunrise Dairy near Stoneboro, Pa. – with a state-of-art milking parlor and new freestall barn that houses their newly expanded 300-head commercial Holstein herd.

Bryan, 42, stayed on the farm after high school, then bought out his father, Robert, in 1994. Kevin, 30, worked off the farm after high school, but the lure was strong and in 1996 he, too, bought out his father, Larry.

Initially, the pair owned about 100 head of cattle, housed in an older freestall barn built in 1971, and laboriously milked them in a 50-stall tie-stall barn. It didn’t take them long to think about new facilities and expanding the herd.

“The barn needed a lot of work,” said Kevin Richael. “You couldn’t put any money into it and get it back out, and you couldn’t retrofit a parlor into it.”

At one point, the gutter cleaner even broke so the cousins picked up pitchforks and had to fork out all the manure by hand for a while.

New barn. After looking at dairy facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania for more than a year, the Richaels broke ground for their new barn and parlor in September 1999. In March 2000, they moved into a 112-by-216 foot, six-row drive-through, rafter freestall barn with 267 freestalls and automatic alley scrapers.

The parlor is a double-eight Bou-Matic parallel parlor with plenty of room on one end to expand to a double 16.

An electronic identification system keeps track of individual production.

The well-ventilated holding area is lined with rubber mats to help reduce foot problems caused by the constant standing while waiting to be milked. A foot bath cuts down on foot problems, too, and a trimmer stops at the farm every other week.

The Richaels can milk their 300 cows in about 51/2 hours, a breeze compared to the similar milking time spent moving and milking 100 cows in the old tie-stall barn, Kevin said.

The Richaels have been milking three times a day since last August, at 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 9 p.m., but recently dropped the low group from the third milking. They have a team of four milkers that splits the shifts.

“It actually made it easier to get time off,” Kevin said, “and the employees could get more hours.”

The new barn is sited on a knoll, which boosts ventilation, but the hill also afforded the option of adding a basement under the parlor, which houses the farm office.

Buy replacements. Right now, the Richaels don’t raise their own replacements, but sell all their calves and buy milking string replacements, often second calf cows, mostly out of Canada through Tavistock Dairy Sales. They don’t have the room to raise their own, and have been happy working through Tavistock, which tests the cows for BVD and Johnes and vaccinates the cows before they arrive at Sunrise Dairy.

They’re in a transition, however, and for the last six months have been saving some of their heifer calves to be raised by a local heifer grower. The grower gets the calves at about four or five days old.

Dry cows are housed in the old freestall barn.

The cousins are also in a transition from using bulls to breed the cows and breeding artificially. “We used the bulls because of convenience,” Kevin said, “and because we weren’t keeping the calves.”

The milking string is grouped into open and pregnant cows and the bulls run with the open cows in the freestall barn. They have four pedigreed bulls, also purchased through Tavistock.

Bryan, who handles the breeding, said they mated cows and bred A.I. in the old barn. Since they’re sending some of their heifer calves to the calf raiser, he’s looking to do more A.I.

Dairy team. The Richaels rely on a team of consultants – advisers – to help keep their management focus sharp. They sit down with their financial planner, nutritionist and veterinarian every three months or so to identify problem areas, track expenses and identify specific goals.

Most recently, the team looked at ways to lower somatic cell counts and zeroed in on the farm’s cull rate and reasons for culling, as a way to better identify why and when cows are leaving the herd, and whether any management practices can improve the cull rate.

Monthly vet checks keep an eye on herd health. The cousins admit, however, that their new barn setup has only a small box stall to use as a hospital pen and in hindsight, it’s too small for the amount of cows freshening or that need attention.

Focus on forage. The Richaels pay attention to their forages, raising about 120 acres of hay for haylage and another 350 acres of corn that gets chopped for silage. They hire custom operator Chuck Gander, but also work with him on their farm and other jobs, which helps cut their bill.

“It gets pretty hectic,” admits Kevin, but with this spring’s wet weather, having the big equipment and extra manpower to get planted and first cutting chopped was worth it. “We’re chopping everything this year.”

They mix and feed four batches of their TMR a day, and see that the feed gets pushed up to the bunks in between feedings.

And thanks to their ration and the improved cow comfort – the freestalls have mattresses and are bedded with sawdust – the cows have responded with milk. The farm has a herd average of more than 23,000 pounds milk and was averaging 80 pounds a day at the time of Farm and Dairy’s visit.

Constant communication. The cousins touch base each morning to discuss what needs done. Kevin typically handles the record keeping and crop work, while Bryan manages the herd health – everything else is split between the two.

For Kevin, the expanded herd has actually afforded more time to spend with his wife, Jennie, and their three children: Derek, 8; Dalton, 5; and Cole, 2. Although he admits it’s always a struggle to find family time, they’re headed to North Carolina in July for vacation.

Both Richaels have no regrets about undertaking an expansion – and debt – of this magnitude. “Would we do it again?” Bryan asks. “Yes!”

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