Some might think visiting farms in the UK, Holland and the USA was a bit obsessive when planning building a new dairy unit, but for a Ontario dairy farmer the research has paid off. Sarah Trickett reports.

Investing $1.5 m (£815,000) in a new dairy unit seven years ago took many years of research and careful planning for Ontario farmer Peter Armstrong. But he felt it was important to see other dairies in operation before investing in his own.

“One thing standing out when visiting the farms was the importance of cow comfort and ventilation, with some systems doing it well and others not,” he says.

“We are strictly a production herd and we wanted the system to maximise the cow’s genetic potential by improving health and welfare we want functional cows with good feet and udders,” he says.

And on entering the dairy parlour you can see the detailed thinking behind the decisions. Noise during milking is kept to a minimum with all milking equipment stored in a subway underneath the parlour.

“It’s astonishing how quiet it is when milking. Not only does this reduce noise and stress for cows, but it also maintains milking equipment and will hopefully double the lifespan this was all at an extra cost of $20,000 (£10,876),” he says.

“Knowing what your cows are doing is important. Transponders fitted to every cow can point out individuals off feed and the automatic sorting gate can split these off for further investigation.

The rubber-matted holding area, sloped floors aiding cow movement, dedicated special needs pen and an allocated vet room are just some of the details in this high welfare unit.

And since moving cows into the 24-stall milking parlour milk yield has increased by 25%, which Mr Armstrong attributes to increased cow comfort. “The herd of 250 cows are now milked three times a day averaging 35-36kg/cow/day with 4.2% butterfat and 3.5% protein, with most cows getting between three and four lactations.”

Housing cows is also low stress, with rubber-matted stalls with sawdust on top. The back 2ft of the stalls are scraped out daily and fresh bedding added on top. Stalls are also sloped by 1.5in and automatic scrapers used to keep passages clean.

Temperature and ventilation control systems also keep the building at an ideal temperature and humidity. “We visited farms using misters in summer to keep cows cool, but we found they had a higher incidence of mastitis. Currently our SCC counts are about 130,000.”

Cows are split into four groups: Peak lactation cows, first calved heifers, late lactation cows (over 200 days) and a fresh group, which is given extra straw, hay and protein pellets. “It is important to try and reduce stress and competition, particularly important for the fresh group, helping prevent displaced abomasums.

Cows are dried off 60 days prior to calving and are housed in a loafing barn and three weeks before calving are placed in a maternity area where they are fed a TMR. Post-calving cows are given a 500ml bottle of calcium under the skin and temperatures are taken once a day for 10 days. Calves are initially housed in hutches for a couple of days before being placed into a small group of calves and are fitted with transponders allowing them to access milk. “Calves are allowed up to 12 litres a day and, as information is automatically recorded about the amount of milk calves are drinking, you can easily identify problems.

“Even though calves are on full milk we rarely get scours and even if they do we don’t take them off the milk replacer as that can do more harm than good.

“Older calves are housed in groups on a self-cleaning bedding pack. This is placed on a 7% slope, meaning calves walk dirty bedding down to the front of the pen which is then scraped away and fresh bedding added. Group housing is a lot easier to manage feeding calves in 40 hutches used to take two hours a day to feed, but now it is all automatic,” he says.

Getting growth in calves at the start can have a difference in milking and we are hoping, as research has shown, feeding calves on full milk rather than restricted milk may increase milk yield by two to three litres a day.