The only constant in any business is change, and for some dairies, that change might include a move to technology such as automated milking systems or calf feeders. Installing that equipment then comes with another question: To retrofit or not to retrofit?

Timothy Terry, a farm strategic planning specialist with Cornell Pro-Dairy, posed that issue in a Technology Tuesday webinar. While growth should be a part of any farm’s outlook, you can’t forget to plan for the future and what’s beyond. This is particularly important when designing facilities. “Otherwise, you may end up with a chaotic arrangement that may make future improvements almost impossible,” Terry cautioned.

Retrofitting is often chosen for the sake of efficiency and satisfaction with eliminating rote labor, said Terry, who previously managed dairies for 30 years. A loose guideline he provided was that if a remodel can be done for less than half of the cost of a new building, it is probably the right choice. When making that decision, also consider if you are currently meeting animal comfort, ventilation, and internal environment goals, or if greater barn adjustments are warranted.

A farm should recognize that in some cases, saving on a new facility now may cost efficiencies down the road. The usefulness of some technologies can be minimized when they are dropped into facilities that don’t work with them, Terry said.

Be sure to evaluate if you have the space to effectively lay out your system, he continued. This includes the correct number of units and the proper dimensions that lead to safe and desirable cow flow. Is there a good location for cows to be directed through a footbath? Is there room for a segregation pen so employees can easily find cows that need special attention? Is there a space for a treatment area for procedures like hoof trimming or dry treatment? These features will make it easier and more effective to work with the herd when incorporated appropriately, Terry shared.

The 50% guideline is a good place to start when looking at retrofitting versus a new facility, but it is not a hard and fast rule for a few reasons that Terry explained. The first is that we tend to overestimate the value of existing structures, possibly for sentimental reasons. However, it’s more appropriate to view a barn as the sunk capital it is, he said, and realize that throwing more money at it may not be a good use of resources.

On top of this, we often underestimate the cost of a remodel. How do you factor in the amount of material needed, availability of those tools, and the time taken away from the business? Additionally, the actual cost sometimes can’t be known until you start peeling back the layers of the construction, Terry recognized.

A final factor to consider is the true long-term efficiencies of the existing facility. Think about what time employees are spending on tasks that could be streamlined or improved.

Moving to a more automated system is not a simple choice for any dairy, and it requires thoughtful evaluation of all of these factors to know if a retrofit or a new facility is the right choice. Consider the health and wellness of the animals living there and the people working there to make the best decision.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2023
February 2, 2023
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