Investing in Big Barn Dairying

July 2014

A large barn and effluent system are part of the infrastructure of a Southland Dairy Farm

More and more dairy farmers are building wintering sheds for at least some of their herd. Philip and Denise van der Bijl have a large 200 metre by 34 metre wintering shed for their cows. 

Philip came to New Zealand in 1962 from the Netherlands with the dream of becoming a farmer. In 1966 he met his wife Denise, and together they were able to go sharemilking 125 cows in Warkworth. The couple bought their first farm in 1974 and after nine years sold it, eventually buying another property near Reporoa. By 1992 they looked to Southland and bought a 1330ha rough block 17km south of Mossburn. The block was once part of the Dunrobin Station. Philip and son in-law John Lang bought the property, taking about a year to convert it.

They now have an 800ha milking platform and milk 1600 cows through an 80-bail rotary farm dairy in partnership with their daughter Yvonne and her husband John Lang.

Son Chris and daughter-in-law Trish farm the original property near Reporoa, milking 1100 cows.

Philip has recently retired as a member of the Fonterra Shareholders Council. He has been a member of the council since Fonterra’s formation and was a member of the NZ Dairy Group shareholders council before that.

The $3.3 million wintering barn is big enough to house 1000 cows. It took about a year to build. The primary reason they invested in the 200m x 34m building is the weather. Philip says it can get as low as minus 7 and just getting cows to drinking water is a challenge in these temperatures.

Another reason for building it was that they were having issues with other wintering systems. “ We had grown swedes in the past,” says Philip, “ but we were getting crop failures. Our kale paddocks were out of the grazing round for 14 months or more. That was costing us too much.”

The first of the dried off cows move into the barn in May. Philip says there will be around 300 or 400 dried off cows in the barn by the week of 12 May. At the peak of winter there are 950 cows in the barn with around 750 outside. Most of the early calvers are the ones that end up outside.

Once inside the shed, the cows go outside only if there is 36 hours of clear weather forecast. He says the cows are really content, and if they are let out they are very keen to come back in again.

Cows are normally back out on pasture once grass growth picks up again in September.

Philip says initially it took the cows a week to get used to the barn. Early on some cows were “grief eating” and consuming more than usual, so they were put back on pasture.

It’s hard to see why the cows wouldn’t be comfortable inside. They get music played to them via a sound system. Music is piped in for its calming effect. There have been studies showing up to 10% improvement in milk yields with classical music.   The main problem is apparently there’s a limit to how long staff can put up with Beethoven.

Cows have foam pads to rest on between feeding, and there are back scratchers that can be triggered by the animals.

Philip says they are pretty much self-contained with feed. They grow barley and make whole crop silage and grass silage. Unlike some of the wintering systems they were using in the past, they can have the paddocks back in production by March. Last year they tried palm kernel and they do buy in some grain for the cows housed inside.

There’s a small machine that tidies up the feed to stop it being spread into the aisles.

Others using a similar barn system have found savings in feed of about 4.5kg/cow/day of whole-crop silage and barley.

Unlike Herd Homes, the barn doesn’t store effluent underneath. Effluent is screened and then pumped into a stirring pond. Solids are taken out and fluid goes into a pond. This happens on a daily basis.

The 12.6 million litres of effluent storage has 95% of the liquid taken out of it. The farm has 120 days’ storage for the fluid effluent, before it needs to be spread, he says.

Philip van der Bijl says the dry effluent is dry like sawdust. He says it needs microbes, like worms, to break it down after it has been spread on the paddock.

One of the obvious environmental benefits of the system is that by containing all the effluent in a concentrated area and only spreading it when the conditions are right, the van der Bijls greatly reduce leaching and run off and saving on fertiliser expenditure.

Research on indoor and outdoor wintering systems has shown that indoor wintering offered extended lactation length, reduced nutrient wastage and more efficient use of feed. These factors were shown to compensate for interest and depreciation costs on the buildings.

Philip says most farmers are now positive about housing cattle inside. He says the main thing that is stopping others from adopting the system is cost. He thinks it would be hard to erect a building for 500 cows for under $1.5 – 2m.   “So that’s a big investment, so as long as farmers can still send cows away they’ll avoid that cost.”