460-head dairy heads for first birthday

This article submitted by Molly Connors on 11/5/96.

After three years of planning, Roman Schaefer and his son, Keith, expanded their dairy farm from 50 dairy cattle to 460 dairy cattle.

The decision to expand was mainly Keith's. The expansion actually allows him more freedom than a smaller dairy would. The Schaefers have ten people working for them. This way, Keith gets time off and his employees get time off.

If something came up and Keith "couldn't come back, the place would keep going," Roman said. In a smaller dairy, "there are 40 cows to be milked and you're the only one who knows how to do it."

The Schaefers researched their expansion project for three years. Originally, they wanted to expand to 150 cows. As they talked to more Midwest farmers and equipment dealers, the Schaefers found that their cost per cow would drop if they had more cows -- like 500 cows.

"They told us more seems to work out better," Keith said.

Because they have so many cows, Keith is able to purchase feed ahead of time. It's actually cheaper for him to feed nearly 500 cows than it was to feed 50 cows.

He books his feed ahead of time. Although the Schaefers farm over 600 acres, they can't raise enough food for their herd. Keith said he's on the phone quite a bit, talking to feed brokers. He buys corn gluten and cotton seed for feed. He also gets sunflower seed shells from Fargo, N.D. The shells are used for bedding. They are free. All the Schaefers have to pay for are trucking costs.

The Schaefers began milking in their new barn last November. The new barn, along with the feed storage facilities necessary for their large herd, had over a million-dollar price tag.

"We'll have to milk a few cows to pay for it," Roman said.

The new barn has a parlor milking system. The Schaefers milk 24 cows at once, 12 on each side. That's more than most smaller dairies milk at once.

The cows come into the parlor from freestall pens. There are four freestall pens. Each has around 120 cows in it. Two pens have the high milk producers, one has the fresh cows and one has the low producing group. Cows are rotated from pen to pen as their milk production fluctuates.

Between the freestall barn and the parlor, the cows are brought into a holding area. The holding area has a crowd gate, controlled from the milkhouse, that slowly pushes the cows forward.

When the cows enter the parlor, they walk through a curtain that reads their ear tag number. The number is displayed on the front of each parlor stall. A small computer system in each stall keeps track of the amount of milk that each cow produces. When the cows are done milking, the milkers disengage automatically.

The parlor system makes milking easier, not only because part of it is automatic. Nervous cows are calmer in the parlor than they were in the old stanchions, Roman said.

"I got kicked a lot more in the old barn than I do in here," Keith said, referring to the new barn.

Morning and evening milking usually takes around four hours. Keith is usually there for both morning and evening shifts. The employees, however, don't usually have to milk twice in one day.

The Schaefers got most of their barn design from other barns. They put in a few things they didn't see in any other barns.

On either side of the holding area, there are pens. One side pen is for the "close-up" cows, who are a few days away from calving. After they've calved, the cows go to the pen on the other side for a few days.

They also have a "vet room" where all the drugs for the herd are stored. When the veterinarian does come, he makes himself at home in this room, Keith said. The vet comes every few weeks. The Schaefer operation treats their own cows as much as possible.

Near the vet room, there is a calving area. This area is heated. If the temperature gets down to 45 degrees, the heat turns on. The mothers stay in this area for a few hours after giving birth. Then, they're moved to a pen outside of the holding area.

A custom calf raiser picks up the calves and raises them until they are springer heifers. The custom calf raiser has 500 calves from four other large dairies. He has a "whole different system," the Schaefers said.

Aside from building a new barn where the cows are housed and fed, the Schaefers built bunker silos, where they store their feed. They also have a TMR mixer, which mixes the feed, so each cow gets exactly the same food.

Roman and Keith toured several barns and large dairy operations all over the Midwest. They got financial advice from bankers, they talked to big dairy farmers and equipment dealers. Then, they planned their own barn.

Their original plan included a manure pit underneath the entire freestall barn. The barn they built has a pit only under the holding area. Scrapers run through the rest of the barn at a slow speed. The scraper gets stuck in the wintertime if it's not left running, and manure gets stuck in corners.

The bank wouldn't finance the barn with the larger pit, which cost almost a quarter of a million dollars more, so Roman and Keith went back to the drawing board. They came back with their present plan, and the barn was in operation on Nov. 7, 1995.

The Schaefers are having an open house with guided tours on Tuesday, Nov. 12, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thirteen agribusinesses will be there with displays.

Their tour is a little unusual. Most new barns have an open house before they start milking. The Schaefer open house won't be "sparkly" with "clean walls," Roman said, but people will be able to see how the barn works.

Overall, the new barn and the larger herd are less problems and less hours for the Schaefers. Roman does most of the field work, and Keith works and oversees the dairy operations.

The only large problem that the Schaefers have found in their new operation are nagging foot problems. The cows' feet are always wet, so they tend to develop foot rot and hairy warts. When the cows are finished milking, they exit the parlor and walk down a runway. There, the Schaefers installed a footbath that keeps their herd's foot problems to a minimum.

The dairy industry is slowly moving toward larger farms, Roman said.

"You don't see any small cow barns -- 50-cow barns -- go up anymore,' he said. "They either go to a big one (operation) or they quit."

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