Gert and Sonja Schrijver declare once a new calf barn is built this fall, that is the last of the construction projects they will undertake for their central Alberta dairy farm for a while. But then they knowingly look at each other for a second and realize they have said that before. But this time they mean it.
The Schrijvers, who operate a successful 250-head milking herd dairy near Stettler, Alta., have been in a construction phase for much of the past 14 years. Immigrating to Canada from Holland in 1994, they settled at Stettler in 1996. For the first five to six years after buying the 50-head operating dairy they got their bearings and worked on getting cash flow started.
Between 1996 and 2002 they bought quota and expanded the milking herd to 250 head. In 2000 they built a new double-12, parallel DeLaval milking parlour, with a 250-head free-stall barn. The heifer barn was built about eight years ago, a dry-cow barn was built last year and this September, they plan to build a calf barn, which will house replacement heifer calves after weaning. In the midst of these projects they also added hay sheds as needed, and last year also managed to include a new house for themselves and daughter Megan in the construction plans.
“It seems like every year we have been building something,” says Gert. “And it is hard to say for sure, but right now the calf barn is the last project, but you never know what is ahead.”
Along with building buildings, the Schrijvers have also developed an efficient, high-quality, high producing dairy herd. Their efforts in herd improvement and production efficiency, along with involvement with industry and community organizations earned them the distinction as 2009 Alberta Breeder of the Year, presented by the Alberta Holstein Association. Each of the five Holstein clubs in Alberta put forward a nominee for the award, and the winner is selected through voting by other dairy producers.
The Schrijvers have developed what might be described as “just a very good operation.” They have a 250-head herd, that in two milkings a day produces about three million litres of milk per year. Average daily production is 38 litres per cow, or a yearly average of about 11,000 litres per head. They have 10 cows in the herd with more than 100,000-litre lifetime production. Milk fat holds fairly steady at 3.8 per cent and the somatic cell count remains low at 100,000 SCC.
LONG-TERM COW HEALTH
Paying close attention to genetics, they have selected semen from some of the top dairy bulls in the world to produce a high producing herd with good longevity. About 41 per cent of the cows in their herd are in their third lactation or higher, which means replacement rates are lower. Most years they replace about 25 per cent of the milking herd, which is lower than industry averages. A lower herd replacement rate, also made it possible for them to sell 65 good-quality replacement heifers to other producers.
“It costs money when you have to replace cows, so the longer you can keep them productive and healthy, the better,” says Gert. “And if you can sell some good quality replacement heifers that can add another $150,000 to your cash flow which is significant too.”
The milking herd is type classified every three months, with the most current report showing seven Excellent, 85 Very Good, and 150 Good Plus (these three levels are above average) and 25 Good. For the past two years among first lactation heifers, 34 head have been classified Very Good.
While genetics create the foundation for herd performance and milk production, overall dairy management is of equal or greater importance in developing an efficient dairy operation.
“It isn’t necessarily any one thing you do, it is a matter of paying attention to many little or individual management factors that make the difference,” says Gert. Proper nutrition, a clean, healthy environment for livestock, paying attention to herd health, and paying close attention to herd reproductive performance — these are areas were management makes or breaks an operation.
Schrijver also emphasizes the value of good employees for making the operation a success. They employee two full-time workers — Neil Sowerby has been the dairy herdsman for the past six years, and Stu Van Der Steen, who looks after feeding and other daily operations, has been with the farm for the past year. “For the first few years Sonja and I did everything ourselves but as the farm grows, it becomes too much for two people,” says Gert. “You have to pay competitive wages with other industries, but it is important to have good people and provide a work environment where they want to stay.”
Schrijver feeds the milking herd a single Total Mixed Ration (TMR), which is fed free choice in bunks inside the free stall barn. The ration includes barley silage, which is produced on the 800-acre farm, good quality alfalfa hay which is bought from a local producer, and a 17 per cent protein supplement. The herd consumes about 26 kilograms per head per day. At the end of lactation dry cows are moved onto a higher hay ration, and replacement calves and replacement heifers also receive a high hay diet.
Heifers are bred at 14 months, ideally to calve at 23 to 24 months of age. The bred heifers have access to ration, but also are out on pasture during the grazing season.
The milking herd is housed in a well-ventilated free stall barn, with a feed bunk running the full length on one side. The cows at one time stood on straw and sawdust pack bedding, but Schrijver found that led to higher rates of mastitis, as bacteria could persist in the pack.
Last year he converted the barn to cow mattresses, opting for the DeBoer latex mattress, supplied by Pro-Line Manufacturing of Blackfalds, Alta. The mattresses, which come in 3’ x 5.5’ panels, are 1-1/2 inches thick says Joel Doornbos with Pro-Line. The mattresses laid in place in stalls are covered with a waterproof fabric, and sawdust is used for bedding on top of the mattress. “They are only 1-1/2 inches thick but are designed so the latex material inside doesn’t compress any more than about three per cent over 10 years,” says Doornbos. Sawdust on the mattresses is scraped down and replaced two to three times a day.
HELP FROM TECHNOLOGY
Although it wasn’t cheap, one feature that is proving to be a most useful management tool is an upgrade to the milking parlor and computer software programs a few months ago, that included a feature called activity meters for heat detection.
Each cow in the milking herd is outfitted with an activity meter attached by a band to one front leg which records the cow’s movement pattern 24 hours a day. With increased movement associated with the heat cycle, the record of the cow’s movement is read by a transponder as it enters the milking parlor and fed into the computer in the farm office. If there is a dramatic spike in cow activity, often reflected too with a drop in milk production at the same time, the system automatically detects that animal as being in heat and as it leaves the parlor the exit gates direct the cow in to a separate holding area.
“As soon as a cow is flagged by the system we breed her through A. I.” says Gert. “Some people say it is 100 per cent accurate, but I’d say it is more like 95 per cent accurate. But with the combination of increased activity and a drop in milk production the system often detects a cow in heat before we would visually. It saves time and is proving to be a very reliable system for helping to improve the reproductive efficiency of the herd.”
A similar system is used on maturing heifers that are to be bred at 14 months of age, although in these cattle the activity meter is attached to a neck collar rather than a leg band. Their cattle ID numbers are flagged on the computer once the system detects a heifer in heat.
Blood samples from all bred cattle are collected 30 days after breeding and sent to Palliser Animal Health Labs in Lethbridge for preg checking. A confirmation test with a second blood sample is sent to the lab at 65 days.
Once cows complete their lactation, for the 50-day break before they freshen, they are moved to large straw-bedded pens in the dry cow and fresh cow barn. Once cows do calve they remain in the fresh cow pen for a week after calving.
“That week is such a critical time in helping maintain a cow’s milk production ability,” says Schrijver. “We feel by keeping her in the same environment for a week after calving it helps to reduce stress and reduce the risk of milk fever. After a week she joins the rest of milking herd in the free stall barn.”
Newborn calves receive first milk colostrum from their mothers and then are placed on a colostrum powder manufactured by the Saskatoon Colostrum Company. Eventually they are switched to whole raw milk, and fed in individual indoor pens, which line one wall of the free-stall barn. Schrijver plans to buy a milk pasteurizer this fall so new calves are fed pasteurized milk before being weaned at two months of age. He says the pasteurized milk will reduce the risk of newborn calves contracting bacteria such as Johnes disease and leucosis.
The Schrijvers have built a dairy farm that affords them an optimum scale of efficiency. While they have no specific plans for milking more cows, Gert does point out how buildings have been designed to accommodate herd expansion in the future.
“The dairy industry in Canada has been very good to us, but you have to stay focused on improving efficiency,” says Schrijver. “It all comes down to reducing the cost of production for each litre of milk shipped. You need the genetics and good quality cattle, but the management has to be there too.”
LeeHartiseditorofTheDairyCornerbased inCalgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]