There are many effective methods of dairy farming, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Many dairy farmers are transitioning to rearing their dairy cattle in large barns for many reasons.
Housing cows inside, or indoor dairy farming, is one way that farmers can control many aspects of their rearing and productive lives, thus improving their comfort, health, and milk output. Monitoring their feed and temperature and effectively managing the effluent increases milk productivity and the farms’ subsequent profit margins.
If you’re looking to transition your cattle to indoor dairy farming but not sure if it’s right for you, let’s look at the benefits and differences between indoor farming and pasture-fed cattle.
What is Indoor Dairy Farming?
Indoor Dairy Farming, as opposed to pasture-based farming, is when a dairy cow herd is kept inside a shelter with all the tools and amenities the dairy cows need. Housing dairy cows indoors with a well-designed shelter or barn such as our composting barns provides them with a safe, comfortable, and dry environment to lie down. With regulated temperatures, they are protected from the elements and have easy access to a balanced diet.
Benefits of Indoor Dairy Farming
A lot of dairy farmers are transitioning from paddocks or outdoor grazing to sheltered Indoor farming environments. The transition to indoor dairy farming comes with a lot of benefits including increased milk productivity and the subsequent income, as well as creating a more streamlined and efficient operation with money- and space-saving advantages.
Improve Herd Health
Similarly correlated to feeding, overall herd health and that of individual cows will have a huge impact on the productivity of your dairy cattle and your farm. The living conditions can have significant effects on a cow’s stress levels, with increased stress predisposing them to infection, illness, and poor production.
Indoor dairy farming shelters, such as farm sheds or livestock shelters, give you control over your dairy cattle’s exposure and bedding which limits the possibility of potential stressors or infection. They enable you to raise healthy and fertile dairy cows by providing safe, climate-controlled, and dry spaces to rest, eat, drink, and produce milk.
Although it’s difficult to convert the cost of cow welfare, an estimate per sick cow left out in the elements could range around the $200 mark. Read our clients Brian and Paddy’s testimonial about how they were blown away by the increase in herd health with the implementation of our composting barn.
Manage Effluent & Nitrogen Leaching
One of the biggest challenges facing dairy farmers today is the excessive amount of nitrogen in the cattle’s urine and faeces that leaches into the soil and has the potential to run off farms. This can contaminate underground waterways and alter the pH of the soil, which can be extremely harmful to the environment and makes the farm less productive.
In a composting barn, an anaerobic system of ‘good bugs’ composts the effluent, providing soft and dry bedding for the dairy cows and reducing the environmental risks of excessive runoff. Here’s Brad, one of our clients, explaining how investing in our composting barn reduced their nitrogen leaching by 50%. Effectively managing the composted bedding allows you to use the compost as a nutrient-rich fertiliser after removing it from the shelter.
Increase Dairy Production
At SmartShelters we have collected relevant feedback and data from our customers who switched to our composting barns and other shelters to help us continuously improve on our structures. Our research shows that dairy cows in indoor shelters are kept warm, well-fed, and healthier and they produce milk farther into the season.
We estimate a switch to indoor farming can expect a 10-20% increase a year for 3 or 4 years. Hitting a milk target of 120% of live weight then holding it stable. For example production for a cow weighing 500kg starts at 440kgMS per cow before the switch to barns. Once indoor farming is implemented that lifts to an average of 600kgMS per cow within 2-3 seasons.
Protect Your Pastures
During the wintertime, pastures tend to have poorer drainage and can become waterlogged. Having a herd of grazing cows trampling on them during this time can tear up your land and make it more difficult to manage. By keeping your dairy cows in indoor shelters, you can save money and resources that would otherwise be spent fixing and preparing the pastures for the transition of the cowherd each year.
Some farms may prefer to keep their farming practices as they are but have a barn as ‘insurance’ against big weather events that cause pasture damage and reduced pasture growth. A client of SmartShelters estimated $80k worth of farm and pasture damage and lost production last spring because they didn’t have a barn. Turning a paddock to mud in a storm may involve regressing the paddock which is expensive and the pastures take a while to respond.
Control Feed Levels
A dairy cow’s productivity is a result of many factors. By controlling the feed levels per cow with a reliable, quality supply of feed, you can help maintain each and every dairy cow’s optimum size, health, and milk yield. Should they arise, any changes in their eating habits can be easily identified, allowing you to quickly address them and minimize food wastage.
SmartShelters has heard repeatedly from our clients that cows are more comfortable in clean, temperature controlled barns. For this reason they don’t require the extra energy of acclimatizing to weather conditions and ultimately consume less. Even if milk production remains the same, reducing feed usage in a barn can increase profit margins. Not all farmers want to increase milk production as this can lead to other issues and might not suit their lifestyle. Cows can eat 1.5 tons of feed per year so by optimally utilizing the feed and saving 20% of supplementary feed, farms can save $100 or more a year per animal.
A SmartShelters client was experiencing a serious issue with lameness in their cattle and reduced their milking to once a day so as to cut down walking for the cows. The farm lost $100k production per season by transitioning to this method and was spending $60k a season on lame cow culls, treatment and vets bills.
He invested in a SmartShelters composting barn for $350k and is already seeing great results. He aims to get to 600kg per cow in the first season and then maintain this level of production. He is already eradicating the issue of lameness and stressed that he hadn’t even anticipated other advantages that come with the barn, Such as safer calving, heat stress relief and future compliance that he is already reaping the benefits from.
Dairy Farming: Indoor v. Pasture-Based Feeding
In the current economic climate with increased costs of grain and labour, plus volatile milk prices, it’s important to evaluate the productivity and efficiency of your milk farm. The benefits of indoor dairy farming will vary depending on your geography and climate, as well as the specific amenities of a shelter, but when properly implemented, they can provide significant advantages for herd health and productivity no matter where you farm.
One important consideration is that cows typically have less opportunity for exercise in traditional style barns than when they’re at pasture. Some farmers believe that there is a “sweet spot” of alternating between both pasture and indoor-based feeding as the ideal dairy farming technique. This can help protect your pastures in the winter months while giving your heifers room to roam at optimal hours of the day.
At the same time, indoor shelters help to regulate their temperature, increase comfort levels, and monitor food intake as required. Ultimately the design of composting barns enhances the freedom to move and increases activity and exercise levels compared to traditional barns, and combined with the freedom to feed, these factors increase dairy output.
Why are Dairy Cows Kept Inside?
Unlike humans, cows are unable to sweat much as they do not have many sweat glands, instead of dissipating heat through their breathing. This makes it more difficult to regulate their temperature and they can become very uncomfortable in the summer months. Overheated cows can become stressed and ill very quickly. Dairy cows can weigh over 750 kilograms and produce a lot of body heat, so keeping them cool is harder than keeping them warm. Read our previous blog about Keeping Cows Cool to find out more.
Composting barns can have versatile amenities to help regulate temperatures at different times of the year. Some have open sides that can be closed in the cooler months, trapping all that ambient heat, while fans and misters (spraying water droplets to keep the heifers cool) can be installed and utilised in the summer months. A happy heifer is a healthy heifer.