When John Harrison got his start milking his own cows in 1984 he did it at two separate farms through a partnership and lease agreement. Three years later, he was able to relocate and start a single dairy, Sweetwater Valley Farm, near Philadelphia, Tenn. As his cow numbers grew, Harrison decided to go back to separate facilities. Surprisingly, it has made the operation more efficient.
In 2012, Harrison built a new satellite facility with the intention to add at least 350 more cows to his operation. After addressing overcrowding issues at the home dairy, Harrison modified his original plan. In the end, the expansion did allow him to add 250 cows to his total operation, and today he’s milking 1,250 head.
In the old setup, Harrison was running 1,000 cows through a double 12 parlor. The home farm now milks 850 fresh cows, and the newer farm, which is less than a 10-minute drive, has 400 tail-end pregnant cows. Cows are only at the satellite dairy for three to four months. All calving is done at the home farm.
On the newer farm, Harrison built a tunnel ventilated freestall barn to house cows near a double 8 parlor. Translucent sky panels let in lots of light, and the ventilation keeps cows cool.
“It is a real simple layout and we’re using it as a pen extension for pregnant cows and the tail-end group where there is really no management,” Harrison says.
The new parlor operates 24/7 with three shifts. Only one person is on hand to milk.
“I think this model is very competitive with the 3,000-cow rotary farms. We can do this for less than $3,000 per cow,” Harrison says.
The setup does require cows to be transported between the farms. Every three or four days a trailer load of cows, from 10 to 12 head, is hauled between dairies. Despite the shuffling, milk production remains high with a rolling herd average near 30,000 lb. per year.
“What it allows us to do is use our assets a little more efficiently,” Harrison says of the split farms.
For example, all the feed goes through the feed center at the home facility. The entire feed center is enclosed under one roof, which helps decrease shrink. Every day three loads of feed are hauled to the satellite dairy in a mixer feed truck.
Cows are primarily bedded with sand at both farms. With more room to spread out the herd, dry cows are housed in a compost bedded pack barn at the home farm.
Yearling and younger heifers are developed in a pack barn. Breeding age heifers are turned out on fescue pastures near the dairy. A feeding alley with lockups and an open sided lean-to-shed provides a nice place to breed and prepares the heifers for barn life.
Harrison has thoughts of expanding again when the timing is right. Now that both farms are up and running, he believes his satellite farm has the capacity to run 500 cows with just one person milking.
The main parlor has undergone three renovations to get to a double 12. The next step would be to make it a double 20 parallel. However, with the success of the satellite farm and the low operating cost, Harrison believes that might be a more appealing growth route.
“This should’ve been our high-producing cow facility,” Harrison says of his satellite farm. With most of his infrastructure at the home farm his hands were tied on what he could do.
If he builds another satellite farm, Harrison thinks he might turn the home farm into a transition dairy where he’d go from milking 850 head down to 500 cows.