Like all new, robotic barns I visit, the Haag Farms barn is clean. Quiet. Calm. Cows are tranquilly going about their business of eating, resting and being milked – a process Roger Haag can closely monitor from the screen in his office.
It’s not just the screen he watches though and it’s his time in the barn, watching the cows, that may account for why Haag Farms near Brussels is the Top Robotic Herd for Management Score in Canada, the Top Herd Overall for Management Score in Ontario as well as placing 11th in the National Top Herd for Management Score ranking in Canada.
He’s had quite a few interviews since becoming the “top dog” in dairy farming, as recorded by the CanWest Dairy Herd Improvement Association back in February.
As he’s had time to reflect on the achievement and the questions farm writers have asked him about the dairy farming, he has tried to distill the success into a few main concepts, falling into two categories: the new barn and management style.
Before those happened, Roger goes back to the previous generation when his family emigrated from Switzerland. Roger was just a boy watching his father and older brother, Erwin, choose genetics and slowly build up a high-producing herd on two separate farms.
“My dad was a forward thinker and he and my brother worked hard and took genetics seriously,” says Roger. “My dad got into embryo transfers which was very progressive at the time.”
Eight years ago, the family achieved the top milking herd in Huron County but couldn’t seem to progress past that.
“Milking in two places, we were spreading ourselves too thin,” believes Roger who now farms with his wife, Karen, and their three young children since his father and brother passed away.
The new barn consolidated all the animals on one farm, including the 150-cow milking herd, and with it, Roger applied all his animal husbandry skills to create a winning combination.
Roger and his dad and brother had spent years visiting other facilities before building their own. There were three things they incorporated into their new barn which he credits with happy, high-producing cows...
1) Sand bedding: This was an obvious choice, says Roger. “We had been using mats and chopped straw but we saw and heard how healthy sand-bedded stalls were for cows.” The cows thrive in the new stalls and Roger saw results immediately. Somatic cell counts dropped. There was dramatic improvement in leg and foot health. Plus, the cow longevity score (already high) increased as older cows stayed in the herd longer.
Which sand to use was a concern as coarse sand coupled with new concrete can be too harsh on cow’s hooves. Roger had been warned about this possibility, so initially he purchased fine sand from a Grand Bend company. Then, once the barn had “aged” a few years, he began buying coarser sand from a neighbour to reduce transportation costs without any negative side-effects on the cattle.
2) Ventilation: “Our ventilation was not poor before. This is better yet. More fans. More space. More air.”
3) Wider Alleys: This is closely tied to ventilation as one of the new-barn’s improvements to herd health, says Roger.
He explains that in a dairy herd, there are boss cows who dominate their favourite places. Submissive cattle can have stress trying to pass boss cows in the alleys so having a wide alley where two cows have lots of room to pass each other gives the shy cows space to maneouvre around the barn without fear of a head butt.
A new barn with lots of space and three robotics milkers (with room for a fourth), opened options to different management choices such as multiple milkings per day.
“We wanted to go to three times a day milking but for our family, it would have been too much labour. With the robots, we get well over 3X milking on most cows and the fresh cows get milked four to five times per day,” says Roger.
Multiple milkings are good for the cow’s health (alleviates a swollen udder) and allows a cow to reach peak production without stress. Full udders can leak, opening teat ends, making cows susceptible to bacterial mastitis. Cows enter the milking robots looking for a ration of pellets at their choice and management software controls how often they can be milked.
In a robotic system, the top three management tools Roger believes contributes to achieving top herd status are....
1) Twice-daily reviewing the Collect Cows, Rumination and Heat Probability reports. Robotic technology records data on each cow daily of which the first one Roger checks is “collect cows”. This is the report that reveals which cows haven’t passed through the robotic milker in 10 to 12 hours.
These reports indicate when a cow is off, or, they confirm something he’s witnessed by simply standing and watching his cows throughout the day.
“Watching the cows is an intentional practice and I’m surprised how much I see in just a few minutes,” says Roger.
He likes being in the barn and says “we didn’t spend this much money on a new barn for the family to NOT be in it.” In fact, on a hot day, being in the barn is one of the coolest and calmest places to be.
The wide spaces aren’t just good for the cows, they are good for the couple’s three young children. The kids bike and play in the bright, wide feed alleys, spending time around their parents and the cattle.
2) Family isn’t really classified a “management choice” but Roger says it needs to be listed because without the support of his wife, he wouldn’t be able to do what he does.
Karen works part-time as a teacher and takes care of the family, feeds calves and does the books.
“During crop season when it’s really busy, we cannot work 15 hours without food,” he says. Karen’s care of the family is a huge component of the family farm success, he says.
3) Udder health: Animal health and specifically udder health are some things Roger monitors closely. “You can treat it, of course, but prevention is absolutely the best tool and sand bedding has helped so much with that.”
Looking to the future, Roger says he will continue to benchmark with DHI. While production is good, he believes there is room to maximize it.
As to the media attention from his DHI scores, Roger says it’s important to him to seen as a normal, hard-working family. As a reader of farm magazines himself, he recognizes that subject needs to be shared or else “what would we read?”
He also sees the larger purpose of presenting a positive image of agriculture and farming to the public.
Plus, he sees it as payback.
“It would be ignorant of me not to give barn tours considering how many barns we visited when planning to build our barn,” says Roger.
Other management tools Roger relies on are a whiteboard for staff communication and herd health visits every two weeks.
“We really value the advice and information from our vet and nutritionist,” added Roger. ◊