Portraits in Progress: Comp Dairy looks toward profits of efficiency

(ed. note: The following feature was included in the 2001 Farm and Dairy Progress Edition)

DORSET, Ohio – Jim Comp has always lived on the dairy farm in Ashtabula County that his grandfather bought in the late 19th century.

The house and the big red barn are the same buildings in which his grandparents and parents lived and farmed.

But if his grandfather were to return to the farm today, not much would seem familiar in the complex of open barns, buildings, feed bunkers, fencing and machinery that encompass the old barn.

Two milking parlors that have been added over the years are both attached to the front of the barn, just steps away from the house, disguising the older building.

A concrete storage bunker built just beyond the barn, used only for a couple of years and then replaced by an open-air poured concrete pad, has been cut through to recapture the space. The effect is a maze of bunker wall created spaces.

Not his grandfather’s farm.

Comp Dairy Farms is not the old Comp place that Allen Comp farmed. Neither has it become a show place of new dairy buildings and practices.

It is the pieced-together result of Jim Comp’s desire to preserve the farm he inherited so that his sons would have the chance to farm, and of his drive to find the key to survival in the profits of efficiency.

This year, his herd of 700 Holsteins averaged 75 pounds of milk a day, higher than ever before.

And this year, Comp has decided that if the price of milk holds, it is probably time to build a new Virginia-style heifer barn.

When Comp was young, the farm was milking a herd of less than 50 cows in an old stanchion barn. By the 1980s, he was milking about 200 cows, had converted the barn to freestalls, installed a double eight herringbone milking parlor, and added a special care and close-up barn out behind.

Feed well.

“The main thing I had learned from my father was to be a good feeder,” Comp said. “I have always made sure I was feeding my livestock well.”

It was a dairy tour he took to New York in 1989 that changed his course, and set him on his quest for management efficiency and the economy of scale.

The large dairy operations he saw there convinced him that if he was going to survive, he had to grow aggressively.

Comp is the kind of farmer who likes to take a look at what other people are doing, see what he can learn from them, and then figure out whether it makes sense for his own operation.

A few years ago, when he wanted to abandon his silos as too labor intensive, he was convinced by producers he talked with that concrete bunkers were the way to get efficient feed storage. He had one built.

Within a year, he changed his mind. Another group of producers that had gone to pad storage convinced him it was even more efficient.

Too many advantages.

He decided the advantages of a pad were so significant, he abandoned his newly build bunker. Comp’s guiding philosophy is to keep everything pushed to the maximum and keep labor at its most efficient.

There is more loss with a pad, but Comp is sure with practice they will find more efficient ways to protect the feed and reduce losses. The pad is designed to hold 4,500 tons of dry silage.

When Comp and his two sons decided to enlarge the operation, they made plans to build a new milking parlor, to bring the herd up to 1,000 cows, and then to build a new freestall barn on a hill behind the house, away from the existing barn.

Used the space.

The space adjacent to the old parlor made it impossible to install a large enough herringbone parlor to handle the cows they were intending to add. Instead, they installed a double 16 parallel parlor that uses even the space around the end of the milking stations, forming more of a U-shaped parlor than a purely parallel design, open at both ends.

The idea, Comp said, was to get as many cows into as small a space as was possible.

By the time the herd grew to 1,000 cows, however, Comp’s oldest son, who had been the partner who worked with the cows, died. Jim Comp and his younger son, Jerry, abandoned the new barn project and cut the herd back to 700.

Milking three times a day, Comp has just about enough cows milking at any time to keep the parlor running 24 hours a day. If he allows the herd to increase from his own replacement heifers another 100 to 150 cows, he said, he will have accomplished that central measure of efficiency.

The parlor, with automatic take-off milkers, can be operated by one person, with another employee to keep the cows moving. Comp employs three full-time milkers, one each on three shifts.

“It’s not the most efficient production,” Comp said. He knows of other operations that milk twice the cows with the same parlor.

Quality workplace.

But he also concerned with the quality of the work environment on the farm.

Part of running a successful operation of this size with its 15 employees is in creating an atmosphere that makes people work as if it were their own farm.

They are financially rewarded with a bonus system for using their own initiative, Comp said.

The Comps also recently built five prefabricated homes to provide housing for the people they employ full time.

In addition to the milkers, the farm employs a herdsman, two calf feeders, a full-time mechanic, and a variety of herd and field workers. Jerry Comp is responsible for the crop farming. His father is operational manager for the dairy.

Farming 1,500 acres.

The Comps are farming 1,500 rented and owned acres, raising mostly corn and soybeans.

Comp said they sell the beans on the futures market, feed the largest percentage of the corn, but sell what they don’t use, and raise a little soft red wheat and alfalfa in their crop rotation.

They recently started no-till farming on some of the land, and Jerry Comp is ready to expand that portion of his operation to include more of the farm.

The last barn Comp built is a five-aisle freestall that is meant to accommodate only about 200 cows. But it allowed him to fully adopt a herd grouping plan he saw in upstate New York on a small, but well-managed, dairy farm.

The new barn, he said, houses one of the four groups into which his cows are divided. These are the AI cows, and he has a technician on the farm daily to work with them.

Kept separate.

Fresh cows, which usually make up about 8 percent of the herd, are housed in a second group for 30 to 45 days before they are moved into the AI group.

The AI group is usually about 40 percent of the herd. The cows stay in this group about 45 to 50 days.

Toward the end of their lactation, Comp said, they are moved into the bull group, which is kept in the original barn.

Dry cows have their own facility, or are moved out to pasture until they are ready to be moved into the close-up barn.

Special needs cows are segregated into the holding pens for the old milking parlor, and are milked separately in that smaller facility.

Keeping the herd divided in this manner makes it easier to keep an eye on them, and to deal with the special needs of each group, Comp said.

When he started adding cows to his herd, he found it is more difficult to keep track of herd health.

“I was raised with a stanchion barn, where you saw the cow feed, watched it milk, saw the manure, knew exactly what was going on. In a milking parlor you are more removed from the cow, and in the parallel parlor, you are even more removed than in a herringbone,” he said.

Johnes disease.

A struggle he had with Johnes disease when he started bringing outside heifers into his herd convinced him of the necessity of an aggressive vaccination program.

He now is considering adding cow transponders to measure and track milk deviations that he found so easy to keep track of with fewer cows.

At over $200 a cow, however, Comp said he and his son have to decide if they would be able to use of all the information the system would provide.

Jim Comp’s herd, with a running herd average of 24,000 pounds of milk, is consistently among the top herds in Ashtabula County on the DHIA reports. A number of his cows are included in the top cows that average over 36,000.

But Comp doesn’t worry about pedigrees. He buys registered cows, but never bothers to keep up the registrations. He allows the AI technician to select the bulls for the breeding program.

“This is a commercial herd,” Comp said.

What Comp Dairy Farms is directed toward is finding the most efficient and cost effective way to produce the crops and dairy that can be marketed at current prices and still survive as a family farm.

And while there are 700 cows rather than 70, Comp said, that still works out to a 50- or 60-cow average for each person working on the farm.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)


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