We've fine-tuned how we feed and handle cows in our newer facilities and changed our old facilities to meet the needs of our growing herd.

Our initial plan going back to 2006 was to build two free stalls for about 250 cows each, a special-needs/dry-cow facility, and a new milking center. Problems we encountered with our manure storage system have kept us from following our plan. So far, we have built only the milking center and Barn One with 232 free stalls.

But, we have tried to not let the roadblocks stop our progress. Two major, "Plan B" developments (see page 403 in this issue) have been converting our old, vacant tie stall barn to free stalls for Jerseys, that would fit the stalls, and turning our 30-year-old, 90-head heifer and dry cow free stall barn into a bedded-pack, close-up barn (March 10, 2010 issue, page 177).

These two changes, which would not have been possible without the input and guidance of our farm team (see February 10, 2010 issue, page 108). Our team includes Jason Yurs, farm manager; Rick Halvorson, our veterinarian; Jim Barmore, GPS Consulting; Matt Kooiman, our Vita Plus representative; Rod Martin, Vita Plus nutritionist; Rod Wautlet, Agri-Business Consultants; and magazine staff. But, it takes a team of dedicated, hard-working employees. In addition to Jason Yurs, they include Joe Roberts, feeder; Stephanie Ayoub, herdsperson; Hattie Simonis, herdsperson; Arnie Febus, lead milker; and several part-time employees.

In 2006, the last full year in our old barn, we shipped 2.33 million pounds of milk. During 2007, with six months in the new facilities, we shipped 3.54 million. We switched to 3x in June 2008 and shipped 4.97 million pounds that year without constructing any new buildings. After putting free stalls in the old tie stall barn, we began adding Jerseys during late 2009. Milk sales in 2009 were 5.74 million pounds followed by 7.53 million in 2010 . . . still with no new buildings.

Until mid-2007, the heart of our operation had been the 82-cow tie stall barn. At one point, we were milking 160 with the switch cows housed on bedded packs in converted machine and tobacco sheds.

In June 2007, we moved into the new, 232-head free stall barn and began using our new, double-10 herringbone. We chose a narrow (60-foot-wide), two-row free stall design. With 16-foot-high sidewalls and Guernseys being relatively heat tolerant, we did not install fans in the free stall barn. We did put fans and sprinklers in the holding pen.

We do take a hit on milk and breeding during the hottest weather, although it is not serious. We're investigating both cross-vent and wind-tunnel buildings. Or, we may just stay with some variation of a more natural ventilation design.

We chose to go with electronic ID and sort gates for our herd work as opposed to headlocks. That system, which involves a palpation or management rail, also gives us daily milk weights and activity monitoring for heat detection. It works well for our Guernseys and is popular with our veterinarian, Rick Halvorson.

However, the palpation lane was just a playground for the Jerseys we have added. Most of them are housed in the old stall barn that has been converted to free stalls, and examinations were given in the stalls.

We recently put headlocks in one section of the new free stall barn where our first-calf Guernseys and Jerseys (for the first two to three weeks after calving) run together.
(As an aside, we have found that commingling laid-back Guernseys and aggressive Jerseys is not as disastrous as we thought it might be. Jerseys hold their own, to be sure. But it is not the "oil and water" mix some predicted.)

We modified the free stalls slightly and took out the feed bunk. The stall changes have been a good thing. We're still up in the air about the bunk decision.

Initially, we went with J-bunks instead of a flat feeding manger because of labor, primarily, but also biosecurity. Our farm manager, Jason Yurs, likes to feed to a clean bunk, and our feeder, Joe Roberts, spent little time cleaning out bunks before feeding. Our planning assumed that pushing up feed three times between twice-daily feedings would have required at least three hours' worth of labor, skid-steer wear and tear, and fuel a day. At $20 an hour, that's $20,000 a year.

Of course, bunks aren't cheap. Ours cost about $16,000 or around $28 per foot. Advantages of not having bunks are faster feeding, in our case, and being able to move feed around if part of a pen's manger starts to get bare.

One advantage of the two-row barn design we chose was that our feeding tractor and mixer did not have to cross any cow traffic areas. We saw this as a big biosecurity plus. However, we now have a cow traffic alley between our old barn where most of the Jerseys are and the new barn/parlor, so we have lost that advantage.

Our free stall changes involved adding a brisket "positioner." For our Guernseys, average weight 1,400 pounds, the face-to-face stalls are 16 feet outside curb to outside curb. Our free stall partitions are 48 inches on center (46 for the first-calf heifers). Our neck rail was 33 inches back from the front of the stall and about 48 inches above the beds.

We rake the backs of our stalls during each milking, and our stalls and cows were what we considered "clean." We did not see many clinical mastitis cases, but our somatic cell count (SCC) was not what we would have liked. We figured there was contamination at the rear of the stalls that wasn't apparent.

After experimenting with one row of stalls, we put an odd-sized PVC pipe (4-7/8-inch diameter) at the front of all stalls. The center of the pipe is 24 inches from the front of the stalls and 60 inches from the rear. SCC now runs in the 150,000 range.

Our free stall partitions were mounted on 6- by 6-inch stub posts, and the fronts of our stalls were open. We had problems with first-calf heifers, especially, going through the front of the stalls and getting caught.We have installed a 2-inch strip of curtain strapping.It is held in place by simple barn door handles attached to the stub posts.

Besides boosting total milk shipped from our facilities, our overall goals have been to improve transition-cow care and fresh-cow starts, raise conception rates, lower SCCs, and keep milk per cow and component levels high.

See page 403 for our facility changes and page 412 for feeding changes in the June 2011 issue