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New facility stops shuffling, brings comfort to cows, people

Alice Guthrie Published on 27 February 2015
Ray, Bertha, Ted and Tyrone Laing

This is the first winter the Laing family of Laingspring Farm, Steinbach, Manitoba, has been able to enjoy not getting up for morning milking at 5 a.m. Brothers Tyrone and Ted run a dairy operation in partnership with their parents, Ray and Bertha, on a farm established in 1872.

The brothers are the fifth generation of their family to farm here, with dairy being the primary business for four of those generations. An older brother, Blake, is a journeyman gas fitter. He occasionally helps on the farm but is not actively involved in the business.

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The Laings work 1,200 acres and grow all of their own forages, mostly corn silage and baleage. Some dry hay is made but is fed only to dry cows and heifers. Grains and concentrates are purchased. Corn and soybeans are grown as cash crops.

Before this winter, a 113-tiestall barn was used for milking 160 cows, requiring cows to be shuffled for every milking. This was time-consuming, and cows had to move in and out of the barn, often getting dirty in the process. Milking was labour-intensive; three men spent three hours twice a day for this job alone.

During one of the coldest winters on record, their new freestall barn was built. It has a 2,000-square-foot straw-bedded pack (used for close-to-calving cows) and 234 stalls, giving capacity for 250 animals.

There is an elevated viewing area from the offices, allowing observance of the herd from this vantage point. They were able to move into this new facility in May 2014. Three robot milkers with online cell counters were installed, and the barn was designed to include space for expansion to a fourth as it becomes needed.

At this time, dry cows are housed in separate penning in the main barn. The family raises their own replacements but expects to purchase some as they expand their operation.

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cows restingThey did purchase a few replacements after a few cows were culled for being unable to adjust to the new system. This action kept the milking herd at 160. Youngstock and dry cows bring the total herd number to 320 head. The cows are registered Holsteins, which are type-classified twice per year. Production records are obtained from the robot system.

One of the biggest advantages of the new system is the huge savings in labour. Before robots, they hired three full-time employees. Only one full-time employee is needed now, along with part-time help provided by a nephew.

Tyrone figures they have saved 120 hours per week in hired help, and family hours have also been reduced, leaving more time for cow management. This in turn contributes to better herd health and cow comfort, which Tyrone describes as “way better.”

The cows are now always housed, which is an improvement, and there is less lameness. There is also an improvement in reproductive success, as they use heat detection collars and have more time to observe the herd. Milk quality was already good but has improved.

Where previously they put in very long days with lots of manual labour, now there is time to catch a breath. “The system definitely works ... it’s unreal,” Tyrone declares. It is no longer necessary to be up by 5 a.m. for morning milking; now they can enjoy their beds until 7 a.m.

Feeding used to take an hour-and-a-half with feed moved from the mixer by a conveyor. Now it takes 10 minutes with the drive-through feed delivery system. Bedding used to be required every day; now it is needed once every two weeks.

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The robots do not eliminate the need to be in the barn; as with any equipment, there are occasional problems. If a robot is down for even one hour it is noticeable, and routine maintenance, repairs or power failures can quickly get the milking backed up.

Tyrone stresses, “When it comes down to it, the herd still needs people in the barn monitoring data, checking heats, treating sick cows or lameness, manicuring stalls for cleanliness and cleaning equipment. Cleanliness is an important part on our farm. Proper maintenance, cleaning and herd management pays back in the end. There will be better results.”

Short-range goals for the Laings are to maximize the three robots, which would be about 180 milking cows. They also intend to renovate the old tiestall barn to a facility for calves, which will be equipped with automatic feeders.

freestall barnThe Laings give credit to their full-time employee, Braydon, for being an excellent calf man, as under his management calves have done extremely well. Calf and heifer pens are full of quality replacement heifers.

Medium-range goals are to add the fourth robot and bring the barn to maximum capacity of about 240 cows. Long-range goals include improving both type and production of the herd.

Improved cow comfort should help with better herd health and reproduction. They look forward to having top-quality replacement heifers for their own herd or for sale.

The family is looking forward to a little more free time in the future. Tyrone enjoys golf, so that may well be a more frequent outing for him. He is also a volunteer fire fighter with the Steinbach Fire Department.

Ted, an avid sports fan, plays senior hockey, coaches minor hockey, plays softball in summer and is a season ticket holder for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Ray is involved in a couple of local hockey leagues and likes to spend time in the shop building and inventing. Bertha is the bookkeeper for the farm. She and Ray both enjoy the company of their two purebred Boxers.  PD

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.

PHOTOS
TOP: Ray, Bertha, Ted and Tyrone Laing beside one of the robots in their new facility. 

MIDDLE: Contented cows rest in freestalls in the Laings’ new barn. 

BOTTOM: An inside view of the freestall barn. Photos courtesy of the Laings.

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