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Pack mentality

Addition of compost-bedded barn at Dickson County’s Daniel’s Dairy is proving to be a worthy investment
Story and photos by Chris Villines 5/26/2017


Benjie Daniel kneels in front of the compost-bedded pack barn he and his father, Johnny, added to their Charlotte dairy farm in November 2014. The 250-by-118-foot barn was designed to provide maximum comfort for the Daniel’s milking herd of 200 Holsteins, with roughly 100 square feet of resting space per cow.
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Grade A dairies like Dickson County’s Daniel’s Dairy don’t stay in existence for 63 years by accident. It takes a special kind of dogged determination to produce quality milk 365 days a year regardless of what obstacles life or Mother Nature pose.

With this mindset, Johnny Daniel and son Benjie have grown what was a 40-head milking herd in 1978 —  the year Johnny began running the dairy — into a 200-head Holstein operation. The dairy, which was established in 1954 by Johnny’s father, Lewis, serves as the centerpiece of the family’s scenic Century Farm, which also includes corn, soybeans, hay, pasture, barley, and balage.

But there’s another driving force that has allowed Johnny and Benjie to remain relevant when the volatility of the dairy industry has caused some to quit the business altogether: the quest for continuous improvement.

“We’re always looking for ways to boost milk production, enhance milk quality, reduce lameness, increase cow comfort, and control our feed costs, to name a few things,” says Benjie, who’s president of the Tennessee Dairy Producers Association and a director at Dickson Farmers Cooperative. “There are opportunities for improvement no matter where you look.”

Researching what milk producers across the U.S. were doing to bolster their operations, the Daniels made the decision in 2014 to invest in the construction of a compost-bedded pack barn that could help them check off many of their improvement initiatives.  The 250-by-118-foot galvanized steel building, constructed by Weaver Steel of Auburn, Ky., was completed in November 2014.

“We visited dairies around Tennessee which were using pack barns, like Sparkman Dairy in White County,” says Johnny, a longtime Dickson Farmers Cooperative member and former director of both the local Co-op and Tennessee Farmers Cooperative. “After seeing these structures and talking with Jeffrey Bewley, a pack barn guru at the University of Kentucky, we took what we saw and designed what worked best for us. I give Benjie all the credit because he did the majority of the research.”

  Every facet of the pack barn, Benjie explains, is aimed at one central purpose — keeping the cows comfortable.

“A cow that is comfortable is going to give more milk,” he says. “It’s common sense. You give her a soft place to lay and keep food and water within close range. Everything that cow needs is right there. Free stalls were the popular thing for a long time and they still are in some parts of the country, but ours never worked well. Our cows never liked to lay in them much, and as a result we were having hoof problems and mastitis issues. The pack barn is wide open, so the cows can lay where and how they’re comfortable. They’re not confined to individual stalls.”

The barn features 26 fans for constant air flow and 20,000 square feet of pack area, which equates to 100 square feet per cow for 200 head. It’s bedded with thick layers of kiln-dried hardwood shavings that the Daniels get through a local source. The ultra-dry shavings — safe for dairy cows but toxic to animals such as horses because of the different kinds of woods in them — soak up the cows’ urine and manure to form a compost that is used as fertilizer for the farm’s crops.

“Every time we get the cows up to milk, we run a chisel plow through the pack and aerate it,” Johnny says. “We keep the fans on at all times unless it’s ultra-cold. That plowing and aeration keeps the pack dry enough so that the moisture content doesn’t get too high.”

Composting, Benjie adds, is an aerobic process where the organic matter — the shavings, urine, and manure — is decomposed. As the compost works, it produces heat down deep in the pack, killing the harmful bacteria that can cause mastitis issues in dairy cows.

“You can dig down in the pack about eight inches and it will be hot enough that you can’t hold your hand there,” says Benjie. “It gets up to about 150 degrees, so the material you take out of there is weed-free because it’s been hot enough that it’s killed all the germs on anything that grows on it.

“There are four-foot walls in the barn, and we put about a foot of bedding in it when we first started packing. After a couple of years, the bedding had grown to almost the top of the wall. But when the composting process started, it began to go down. The compost is a black material that looks like something you would want to plant your garden in. And the odor isn’t as strong. There’s a little bit of an ammonia-type smell but nothing like it is when you’re scraping a freestall lot.”

With the increased cow comfort provided by the pack barn, Johnny notes that the corresponding increase in milk production was “almost immediate.” There were also marked improvements in the all-important somatic cell count and plate count numbers.

“We’re averaging around 80 to 89 pounds of milk per cow per day, and before the pack barn we were at least 10 pounds under that on a good day,” says Benjie. “We’ve had to go back to milking twice a day instead of three times because we can’t find enough labor, which has affected production a bit, but overall, we’ve been very pleased. Our somatic cell count now runs under 200,000, whereas before we were in the 400 range, which is the legal limit now.”

Another benefit of the barn has been feed cost savings. There are feed alleys (covered with eight-foot overhangs) on both sides of the facility featuring custom-designed slant bars, manufactured by TFC’s Gate Plant, that allow just enough room for the cows to stick their heads through to reach their total mixed ration. The Daniels work closely with TFC Feed Specialist Gary Williams in creating their cows’ feed program.

“With the way we were feeding in the old barn with the bunks, there was a lot of waste,” explains Johnny. “Cows were raking feed out in the alley, and then it was getting scraped into the manure pit. We didn’t realize how much we were wasting until we moved them to the pack barn. The Co-op-designed slant bars have saved us no telling how much feed because the cows can’t throw feed over their back and they can’t raise up, back out, and spit feed on the floor. It’s really been a huge plus for us and demonstrates the kind of personalized service Co-op gives that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Benjie calculates that the Daniels are saving more than 20 percent on the cost of feed.

“Putting out row crops, chopping corn silage, and buying concentrate is expensive,” he says. “When you see that stuff going into the manure pit that hadn’t passed through the cow, it’s evident there was money left that we were throwing away.”

The number of health-related issues in the milking herd have also been greatly reduced since the move, Benjie adds.

“We have cows that are still here that would not have been before,” he says. “If a cow had a bad foot, you’d treat her but she still had to do all that walking up the hill and across the pasture. Now, we’ve seen our culling rate due to health problems and lameness go way down. We cull on production or because a cow doesn’t look right.”

Nearly three years after transitioning their Holstein herd into their new five-star surroundings, the veteran father-and-son dairymen say they’ve seen enough out of their cows and out of their production numbers to be thoroughly convinced that the pack barn was a project worth undertaking.

“It was a financial commitment on our part, no doubt, but it’s paying for itself a lot quicker than we thought it would,” says Johnny. “We made sure it was built well. We didn’t just go out there and throw up a pole building and start putting cows in there. My only regret is that we didn’t build it 10 years ago! It’s worked really well for us.”

And the barn, Benjie believes, sets the Daniels up to hopefully keep churning out quality milk for another 63 years.

“The way we had been doing things worked,” he says, “but when you look at where dairies are going, the pack barn was something we needed to do in order to stay competitive. This was a big step in the right direction for us, and we’ll continue to push along for better milk quality and cow comfort.”

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