PEARL CITY, ILLINOIS – It’s good to be a dairy cow at Hunter Haven Farms.
That was made abundantly clear during a virtual tour hosted midday Thursday by the Illinois Milk Producers Association and University of Illinois Dairy Extension.
The emphasis of the tour, given by farmer Scott Brenner, was technology. In a moment we’ll get to the methane biodigester that puts the 2,000-acre operation on the cutting edge.
But humane treatment of the herd is a key factor in the nearly 100 pounds of milk per day the farm gets from each of its 900-plus cows. Participant Mike Hutjens, a professor emeritus at U of I who was raised on a 313-acre dairy farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin, asked Brenner what, exactly, he monitors on his farm.
“You can tell a lot about how a cow is feeling by just looking at her,” Brenner said. “Are her ears up? How do her eyes look? Is her udder full?”
He said the simple act of keeping heifers, animals who have never given birth before, and cows, animals who have already given birth, separate reaps big dividends.
“Cows are very social animals,” he said. “They have a pecking order, just like people.”
Brenner said it’s crucial to consistently crunch the numbers to know exactly how many heifers you need to maximize the operation, and to leverage the data and control the size of the herd and minimize the number of animals that get sold into feedlot operations.
“We’re trying to get the numbers right, so there aren’t many animals who don’t make the team,” Brenner said.
On the subject of efficiency, the farm uses an elaborate, anaerobic digester that … well … digests methane from manure and turns it into energy used on the farm.
Brenner spends all of 10 minutes a day with the biodigester. He compared its digesting process to that of a cow, and said its performance hinges on what the cows are eating.
“It’s a flow system like a cow, and the digester has to be treated like a cow,” he said. “If cows slug [down] feed and get a gut ache, that thing will get a gut ache. If you treat it as a piece of equipment, you’re going to be frustrated with it.”
To really drive home the comparison, the digester uses a boiler and heat coils to heat water to 101 degrees – the same temperature of a healthy cow.
In addition to producing natural gas, the digester produces biodegradable, comfortable bedding for the cows, which is added every morning to the stalls. The farm sells tons of additional bedding to a neighboring dairy farm.
Exploring new solutions
The farm could explore integrating solar panels into the operation someday, but Brenner said a project proposed would cost nearly a million dollars. The farm is instead investing its resources in air flow to keep the cows comfortable and, in turn, productive. It’s invested in massive tunnel fans on the end of the dairy barn, and more fans are being installed inside, with the goal of getting steady air flow up to between 7 and 9 mph.
“For us, air flow, and the animals’ comfort, that’s what it’s all about,” Brenner said. “We don’t have an endless supply of money. Everybody’s looking at solar, but we made this system fit us. We’ll let the solar thing work its way out for us. It might be something we can get involved with, but I don’t know.”
The farm finds plenty of other ways to be a good steward. Brenner and the team are constantly tinkering with their cover crops, although seeding rye in the fall, right after the harvest, is a standby.
The farm’s soil contains a lot of clay, and its rolling topography means a great deal of erosion.
“We’ve learned a lot in the past three or four years about what cover crops work, and what won’t. What works one year might not work the next. It’s a very fickle thing,” Brenner said. “Anything we can do to help with soil replacement is very important to us.”
Being agile with decision-making and being willing to scrap aspects of the operation are crucial to a farm’s longevity.
“Maybe you just need to tear the whole thing down and build it again. We’ve done that here,” Brenner said, citing the farm’s overhaul of its breeding program, which included shipping excess heifers to a farm in southwest Kansas.
“If you’d told me I’d have cows in Johnson City, Kansas, I would have told you you’re crazy,” he said.
The Kansas farm features a dirt lot and a concrete feed pad, which conditions in northwest Illinois don’t accommodate.
“Just because it’s the way things have been done the past 25 years doesn’t mean it’s right,” Brenner said. “You just need to take a holistic approach. There’s never anything that’s off the table.”
Whether determining economic benchmarks or discussing succession plans, open, honest, and proactive conversations are vital.
“There are some hard questions that need to be asked and answered, and some of those conversations aren’t very fun,” Brenner said. “There’s give and take, just like anything, but if everybody has the same goal in the end, you can make it work.”