Workshop Focuses on Making Dairy Farms More Efficient

3/22/2014 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

HARTFORD, N.Y. — David Swezey bought his father’s 140-cow dairy herd last June and is looking for ways to save time and money, and increase profitability.

At 32, he also wants Swezey View Farm in Hartford, Washington County, to be successful enough that his children can take it over some day.

Like any businessman, he’s keenly aware of the need to upgrade and try new things or risk falling behind.

“We always strive to make things easier,” Swezey said. “Being in the barn all the time is not where I want to be. I’ve got two young boys at home. I’d like to spend more time with them.”

This young agricultural entrepreneur has a vision for how to make things better. His main challenge is getting the capital needed for labor-saving improvements that involve new facilities and expensive technology.

Cornell Cooperative Extension recently hosted a program, “Milking System Efficiency — Milking it For All It’s Worth,” where Swezey and other farmers learned ways to make their business better. About 30 people turned out for the event at the Saratoga County 4-H Training Center in Ballston Spa, N.Y.

While the program was specifically geared to farmers, many of the principles involved could apply to any business owner, such as establishing goals and having a well thought-out plan and budget before seeking to expand.

Swezey’s highest priority is getting facilities big enough to handle his herd. He currently has a tie-stall barn, which is labor intensive because it requires the farmer to move from one cow to another when feeding and milking animals.

This system is OK for smaller herds, but quickly becomes inefficient once farms have more than 100 milk cows.

For larger herds, the preferred system is a free-stall barn, where cows move about on their own for feeding and are milked several at a time in a milking parlor.

David Kammel, a University of Wisconsin professor, explained how farmers can make this transition while minimizing costs. He showed how a milk parlor can be built right inside one end of an existing barn.

“It’s always fun to see how creative farms can be,” he said. “It’s going to be an expensive situation when you build a brand-new facility. Try to use what you’ve got. That building has value; a lot more value than you think.”

Wisconsin, the nation’s No. 2 dairy producer, has 1.27 million cows, or about twice the 600,000-plus in New York, America’s third-leading dairy state. The vast majority of Wisconsin’s 10,500 herds have 100 or fewer cows in tie-stall barns.

David Balbian, a Cooperative Extension dairy management specialist, said many Mohawk Valley farms have switched over to free-stall barns and milking parlors. In addition to saving farm labor, the more comfortable environment helps cows produce more milk.

“It’s a double win,” Balbian said.

Such steps are especially important for dairy farmers who are faced with extremely thin profit margins. Many farms would like to have small herds, but have gotten bigger in order to generate the extra revenue needed to support young family members who are joining the business, he said.

Staying mindful of competition is another key ingredient to survival, Balbian said.

The farm community is a close-knit group, but individual operators compete with everyone from neighbors just down the road to dairies overseas in places such as New Zealand.

“It’s a world market,” said David Peck, co-owner of Peckhaven Farm in Saratoga. “You have to be efficient.”

Swezey said he currently milks cows twice per day, four hours at a time, from 4-8 a.m. and 5-9 p.m. Previously, he was milking in two separate barns, but has moved those operations into one building.

His next step, when finances permit, will be a free-stall barn with a milking parlor, which he said would cut his labor in half.

“All of a sudden that’s like having found time, so you can do a lot of other projects,” said Sandy Buxton, Washington County Extension agent.

Or, as Swezey hopes, more time with his young family.

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