A survey conducted in 2008 by UW-Extension on 99 Wisconsin dairy farms that had recently modernized their facilities revealed several benefits for both producers and cows that result from updating dairy facilities.
The majority of the dairies in the survey were small to average sized family farms with an average herd size of 82 milk cows before modernizing and 202 cows after modernizing. The survey was conducted to determine what the producers had observed as being the major benefits to modernizing, both from the operator and the cow standpoint. It also asked producers to identify the types of educational resources they used during the modernization process, what they thought was the most challenging part of the process, and what they would change in their modernization process/project if they could do it over again.
Producers were asked to identify the cow benefits that they observed as a result of their modernization projects, and to rate the importance of each cow benefit. This was done on a scale of 1 to 6 with a score of one being the lowest and six being judged the most important benefit by the producer. The highest reported benefit to cows from modernizing was the improvement of overall cow health, which was observed on 85% of the farms. Overall cow health was also rated as the most important benefit by producers. Less feet and leg problems were listed as the second highest benefit to the cows, followed by lower somatic cell counts, increased production, lower culling rate and increased conception rates. The cow benefits and the importance the producers placed on each are shown in Figures 1 and 2.
Figure 1. Percentage of Farms Observing Cow Benefits
Figure 2. Producer’s Rating of Importance for Cow Benefits
A reduction in labor per cow was the number one personal benefit that the producers gained from modernizing their facilities with 96% of the producers reporting it on the survey. Improved working conditions and safety for workers were listed as the next highest observed benefits. These were followed in order by allowing the business to continue, increased profitability, providing entry for the next generation and increased family time.
While the reduction in labor per cow was the most reported people benefit on the farms, it only rated as the 5th most important benefit by producers. When asked to rank the personal benefits observed producers rated improved working conditions and improved health and safety for workers as the most important. The responses regarding the most observed people benefits are show in figure 3 and the producers ranking of the importance of each benefit to them is summarized in figure 4.
Figure 3. Percentage of Farms Observing People Benefits
Figure 4. Producers Rating of Importance for People Benefits
The survey asked producers to identify the educational resources they used in designing their dairy modernization projects. The most popular educational resource used by producers was touring and visiting other farms with 99% reporting that they had done so. Eighty-six percent of the producers reported using farm visits and seminars conducted by UW-Extension. Other educational resources used by producers are included in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Percentage of Producers Reporting the use of Educational Resources
When asked which educational resources they found most helpful the producers ranked visiting other farms the highest. This confirms that even though freestall buildings and parlors are not a new concept, they are still new to those that do not have them, and farmers highly value organized tours to other farms that have modernized. The producers ranked farm visits by UW-Extension state specialists and county agriculture agents as being the next most helpful.
When asked to identify dairy industry professionals that they utilized for getting information and ideas for their modernization project 93% of the dairy farmers reported receiving assistance from UW-Extension agents and specialists in planning their modernization projects. Eighty-nine percent reported receiving assistance from their milk equipment dealer, 86% from other dairy producers, 85% from their builder/contractor, 76% from their agriculture lender, 66% from their veterinarian, and 64% from their nutritionist.
Planning Challenges and What They Would Change
Producers reported an average planning time of 23 months (from conception to actual use of their new facilities). Only 36% reported using a written business plan, and 46% stated that they would no longer be in the dairy business had they not modernized their facilities.
When asked what the biggest challenge that they faced in the modernization process the top answer was working with contractors and/or serving as the general contractor on the project. The other most commonly reported challenges were deciding what system and the number of cows that would work the best on their farm, followed by budgeting and financing, facility design, cost overruns, and finding good and knowledgeable contractors.
Producers were asked to identify financial assistance programs that they utilized in their modernization projects. Thirty producers reported using WI Dairy 2020 grants, 27 used cost sharing programs from NRCS and/or County Land Conservation Departments, 13 utilized the Milk Volume Program and 8 producers used Farm Service Agency loans to assist them with their modernization projects. All the programs utilized by the producers are shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6. Government and Financial Program Utilized by Producers
When asked if they could do it over again what one thing would they change about their modernization project, the number one response of producers was that they would have done the modernization sooner. The second most popular response was that they would have made either the parlor or the freestall barns larger, and the third most mentioned change was that they would have started at an alternate site to allow for more future expansion.