By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
The story is really about manure and the new bedded pack coupled with an agitated liquid manure system which Kristina and Simon Signer built into their innovative new dairy barn near Moorefield.
However, upon entering the barn, there is Kristina, running up and down the aisles with the couple’s four little kids. This barn has technology but even better, it is home to laughter, family and simple fun.
The Brown Swiss herd hardly seems to notice. A few are eating at the manger but most are lounging on the pack that runs the length of the barn. It’s an idyllic scene all around and seems a shame to talk about manure but it must be done, for the Dairypower system is new to North America though it has been operational in Ireland for decades.
Approximately 70 farmers, friends and neighbours investigated the barn during a COVID-19 style open house back in late August. With a few months of experience under his belt, Simon says he couldn’t be happier with the new barn.
“It’s all working so well. We are really pleased,” he says.
Sigview Farms is a family farm started by Simon’s parents in the early 1980s. They milked Brown Swiss from the start, and are now semi-retired, with Simon’s dad doing the calf feeding and Simon’s mom helping care for the grandchildren.
The old bank barn they started farming in is still standing, now home to heifers and calves. The new barn has been a goal “forever” laughs Simon, though he is only in his early 30s.
The barn was built to house 100 cattle so the 50 milking cows calling it home right now have loads of room. The pack is made of sawdust and is cultivated daily with a small tractor and cultivator. Simon shows me pictures of the pack steaming in the summer right after mixing.
Looking out over the cows is a real pleasure to see how comfortable the cows are. They have as much room as needed to stretch, lounge and then lunge to get up. Some get so relaxed and stretched out, Simon and Kristina have been asked if the cow is dead!
How long the pack will stay in the barn before it needs to be removed and spread is something Simon will learn as he gains experience with the bedding system. He’s hoping with daily cultivation, it can be maintained for two or three years but he just doesn’t know yet.
The pack was chosen because cow comfort and less labour were their primary goals when building the barn. Mastitis and udder health is what everyone asks about but Simon says so far, somatic cell counts are down.
“That could be partly due to more frequent milkings and better pre-milk preparation,” says Simon. A Lely robot keeps all the cows milked with only five cows needing a reminder they have to go in for a second milking each day. It’s not too difficult to encourage them to walk into the robot and Simon has no plans to ship any of them.
Kristina, who used to be the one getting up early for the morning milking, said robotic milkers don’t get frustrated when the milker has to stay on for that last, slow quarter.
The barn has tunnel ventilation, a system that was favoured a few decades ago and is seeing a small resurgence. “We feel with the pack and tunnel ventilation, it’s simply the best environment for the cows,” says Simon. He has been to enough naturally-ventilated barns with large fans to see how stale air gets trapped in the barn. Tunnel ventilation can be loud but it moves a lot of air keeping the barn cool even in the hottest days of summer.
The couple was a little worried about the increased hydro costs and Simon noted the farm’s hydro bill doubled in the summer compared to last year. “It was a bit more than I thought but those fans were running 24 hours a day for a while there so I wasn’t totally surprised,” he explains. The robotic milkers, manure agitators and upgraded equipment also contribute to energy usage.
The Signers are only the second farm in North America to install the Dairypower liquid manure system. Adam Steward is the Canadian face of Dairypower, a Irish company which just launched the company into the Canadian market in late 2019. Dairypower systems are in barns across Europe, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries.
Steward explains that by pumping air into the liquid manure tanks under the pack three to four times a day for a minute each time keeps the manure liquid and ready for removal anytime the farmer is ready. “The farmers don't need to hook up a tractor and agitate first,” explains Steward.
The benefit of the injected air is that the added oxygen allows aerobic bacteria to thrive creating an aerobic system. The aerobic bacteria eat the anaerobic bacteria which reduce odours and dangerous gases.
As to the pack in the back of the barn spilling solids into the slats above the liquid system, Steward says it isn't a worry.
“There is such a high-volume of air that the bacteria will be able to break down the bedding material very quickly,” says Steward.
It is something Simon says he will keep an eye on, though. If he had to change anything about the barn, it might be to have constructed a raceway between the pack and the slatted floors.
“The spillover gets heavy for the Discovery (scraper),” says Simon
Other technology in the barn includes the Lely robot (with room for a second when cow numbers increase) and a Juno sweeper.
“When we first got one, my friend described it as a $15,000 broom,” laughs Simon. “But it does push the feed in every hour which makes a huge difference to the cows.”
The barn has been designed for expansion, should the family decide to do that. As they look to the future, the couple believes the system would allow them to market “free-range milk.” As such, there is potential to create a direct-to-consumer fluid milk product.
When asked what advice he has for other dairy farmers considering a new build, Simon says if you want to build, “don’t wait.”
Seeing the cows so relaxed, saving on labour and having a bright, open barn for the kids to enjoy have made the build a positive experience for the couple. ◊