Extra Special Cross-vent barn pampers special-needs cows

February 2, 2009 06:00 PM

Cows and heifers calve in straw-bedded pens that are adjacent to the inlet side of the cross-vent transition barn.

If you asked the cows at Gar-Lin Dairy about their new transition and special-needs barn, they might say they now know what heaven will be like.

Fifteen months ago, these cows were calving on bedded packs in open-front barns that were unprotected from rain and snow and difficult to keep dry.

Today, these same cows are calving on spacious, clean, dry-bedded packs in a climate-mediated, cross-ventilated barn. After calving, they go to free-stalls bedded with virgin sand before moving on to the milking strings. It doesn't get much better than this.

Gar-Lin Dairy is a limited liability partnership formed in 2006 when Gary and Linda Allen, along with their daughter Dana and son Dean, welcomed Gene and Phyllis Speltz to the operation. Gary and Linda have been milking cows at the Eyota, Minn., site, a few miles from Rochester, since the 1970s. Dana, with a Ph.D. in dairy nutrition, rejoined the operation in 2002.

The Allens had been milking 700 cows at the site until 2005. Then they added a 180-cow grazing herd, converted to freestalls, and the Speltzes brought in their 300 cows. When their new 50-stall rotary started turning in November 2006, the team was milking 1,150 cows.

Today, total herd size is 1,450, including 200 crossbred cows. Rolling herd average is 30,400 on 3X milking.

"We built the two freestall barns in 2006 without any special-needs facilities,” Dana explains. The cows were calved in converted, open-sided machine sheds at the site. The sheds worked OK but were difficult to keep dry during inclement weather.

The goal for 2007, then, was to build a special-needs barn that could utilize the old double-12 parlor. Given the fact that the families wanted a barn big enough to house 200 cows, they opted for a 160'x220' cross-vent barn that would squeeze into the footprint of the site.

The building is half freestalls and half bedded pack. The north third of the barn is all bedded pack for close-up heifers and calving pens, divided into seven 20'x24' pens. Two are reserved for calving. "We have gates galore for maximum flexibility, and a headgate in every other pen,” Dana says.

The middle third of the barn is split between a bedded pack for lame and problem cows and freestalls for treated cows. Cows are brought up two to three weeks prior to calving. They remain in the freestalls until feet show, when they're moved to the straw-bedded calving pens.

Springing heifers are brought to the barn two weeks before calving and are housed on packs bedded with chopped cornstalks.

The special-needs parlor has been converted to a single-12. (The other half of the parlor deck now houses pasteurizers for both colostrum and treated milk, a small bulk tank for calf milk and a calf-feeding trailer.)

The south third of the barn is two rows of 40 freestalls for fresh cows.

Dana tries to keep the fresh pen stocking rate at 80% to provide plenty of bed and bunk space. Equipped with headlocks, cows are temped daily and checked for ketosis.

Once their milk is saleable, the cows are milked in the rotary. They typically spend 12 to 14 days in the fresh pen before moving on to the main freestall barns.

"We have separate pens for heifers and cows in the main barns, and we try to minimize pen moves,” Dana says. "Heifers stay separate until they're moved to the late lactation pen, usually at 200 days in milk.”

The barn itself has a conventional wood truss, 4/12 pitch with a blown-in insulated ceiling. The attic is ventilated via roof cupolas. Inside, the building has a flat ceiling made of noncorrosive vinyl siding to keep air movement down over the cows. The white vinyl, which was cheaper than steel, reflects light well. Two baffles that run the length of the building over the head-to-head freestalls also force air over the beds.

Twenty-six 55" fans powered by 2-hp motors pull air through the building north to south. "We have four thermostats in the barn to control the fans and the inlet curtain,” Dana says.

Canvas baffles allow equipment to move along a cross alley while keeping fresh air moving down over the cows.
In winter, three to four fans are sufficient to keep air moving. When temperatures reach 60¢ªF, however, all fans power up. "Our concern was whether we could clear all the ammonia from the barn,” Dana says. "This fall, it was pretty good. But last spring, with more humidity, it was more difficult. The bedding pack raises the ammonia levels.”

Unlike most cross-vent barns that are now being built, the Gar-Lin barn has no water cooling pads on the air inlet side. "This far north [Gar-Lin is about 30 miles north of the Iowa border], we wanted to see if we could do without them,” Dana says. "Cooling pads just bring a whole lot of maintenance with them.

"Last summer, if we had days with high humidity, it was hot in the barn. But otherwise, it worked well,” she says.

Manure is scraped with skid steers daily, and the sand is mechanically separated. Sand is added to freestalls twice a week, but only new sand is added to the freestalls housing fresh and treated cows. The packs are bedded daily.

The Allens and Speltzes have been pleased with the barn's performance so far. "The new barn makes everything so much easier,” Dana says. "It's only 50' from the calving barn to the rotary parlor and office. So it has really worked in terms of cow and people flow.

"It has come together better than we imagined. It wasn't a cheap barn, but we think we've done it right.”

Averaged over 200 cows, she estimates, the building cost is $3,750 to $4,000 per cow. The payout: Excellent fresh cow health and few calving problems.

"Fresh cow weights have been good, and the number of animals leaving in the first 60 days after calving has been less than 5%,” Dana says. The herd culling rate, even through the expansion, has remained at 25% to 26%.


Landwehr Dairy's compost half-barn is perhaps the most unusual treated- and lame-cow facility in the country.

The naturally ventilated 104'x192' barn has slatted floors and an underbarn pit, like Landwehr's main freestall facility. But the north half of this special-needs building is a single pen that is bedded and managed as a compost barn.

Landwehr Dairy is a limited liability company that is owned by Dennis and Marlene Landwehr, their son, Mike, and herdsman Isaac Miller. The dairy is located near Watkins, Minn., a good hour northwest of Minneapolis.

The 30'x192' compost pen houses Landwehr's lame and treated cows. The pen comfortably accommodates 60 cows at about 100 sq. ft. per cow. "If we overcrowd the pen, it gets
wetter a lot faster and takes more bedding,” Dennis says.

The other half of the building has 102 freestalls for fresh cows and heifers up to 50 days in milk. The 4'x8' freestalls are fitted with mattresses bedded with sawdust.

"The cost of compost is way higher than bedding for freestalls, maybe three times higher,” Dennis says. "But if you have lame cows, a composted pack is almost a necessity. Cows really do well on it and have a much better chance to recover.”

To retain the compost pack, the north wall of the building is a wall of concrete 4' high, 8" wide. There's another such retaining wall separating the compost pen and the feed lane.

A 14' curtained wall sits atop the outside wall to provide maximum summer ventilation. Air is ventilated out of the building through an open ridge. The roof is also insulated to reduce condensation of the moisture that is released with the daily stirring of the compost pack.

Landwehr Dairy's transition barn houses treated and lame cows on a compost pack (at right) while fresh cows are housed in freestalls.
"That's probably one of the biggest drawbacks,” Dennis says. When it's cold—below zero—stirring the pack can release clouds of moisture. It sometimes gets so foggy, he says it is hard to see where he's driving.

The warm, moist air does escape through the open ridge. And it doesn't seem to have any effect on cow health or increased pneumonia, Dennis says.

The Landwehrs clean the pack down to the slats twice a year. When they cleaned the barn in August, they hauled 22 semi-loads out, each holding 16 to 17 tons of composted material.

To restart the pack, Dennis lays down a layer of cornstalks over the slats as a bedding retainer and then adds a 2" layer of sawdust three times a week. He uses an old 8', 12-tine corn cultivator that is rigged for his skid steer to churn the compost once a day.

When Landwehr built the main, 600-cow dairy facility in 2000, he opted to go with slats and underbarn manure storage. The underbarn pits keep manure out of sight and out of mind for neighbors. Plus the cows do much of their own manure handling, eliminating the need for mechanical scrapers or skid steers to clean alleys.

When he built the special-needs barn in 2006 and expanded to 750 cows, Landwehr opted for the same type of underbarn manure storage. With the pit, he estimates the cost at close to $5,000 per cow. Without it, the cost is closer to $3,000 to $3,500 per cow.

But Landwehr is happy with the barn. And so are the cows—rolling along at an 80-lb. tank average for a herd average of 26,000 lb./cow 3X.

Bonus content:

Click here for resources on cross-vent barns from the Animal Science & Industry Department at Kansas State University.

Click here for more information on compost barns from the University of Minnesota Dairy Extension.

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