NASHVILLE, Ill. — For the Harre family of Wilra Farms, progress and innovation in their dairy operation moves in a perfect circle.
That circle is a rotary milking parlor where cows are milked on a giant carousel that rotates during milking.
“We knew we needed something different,” said Nick Harre, the fifth generation on the family grain and dairy farm in Washington County.
He, his brother, Clint, and cousins, Lucas and Matt, make up the fifth generation. They are joined in the operation by Nick and Clint’s father, Doug, and Doug’s brother, Curt.
The Harres started their dairy operation in the 1960s in a small brick parlor that still stands on the farm.
As their family in the grain and dairy operation grew along with their dairy herd, it became clear that the herd had outgrown the original milking parlor.
“It was taking five-plus hours to milk in that parlor that was built in the 1960s,” Nick Harre said.
Doug Harre did research, visiting other dairy farms to see what could work with the Harre herd.
They settled on the Waikato system, made by New Zealand-based Waikato Milking Systems. The efficiencies of the system appealed to the family.
“We liked the labor savings because it’s hard to find good help and we’d rather manage cows than manage people,” Nick Harre said.
It takes two people to do the milking that happens three times a day on the farm, at 5:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Each milking takes around two and a half hours, along with cleanup. Before, each milking session took over five hours each.
The rotary milking parlor can milk around 270 cows an hour. The cows stand calmly on the platform as it moves.
“I don’t know if it’s because they can see each other, but they stand very calm. There’s no manure on the platform either, and in most parlors, you do have some,” Harre said.
The new parlor and an adjoining new all-seasons hybrid freestall barn were finished in December 2021. The old freestall barn is being retrofitted with the plans of growing the milking herd from its current 460 cows to 550 to 600 cows in another year or two.
Harre said the learning curve for getting the cows used to the new parlor was relatively short.
“It was mainly just getting them onto it. They came in and there’s new concrete, shiny metal and this thing was spinning around and they were like, ‘What is this?’ We were like, ‘Hey girl, you’ve got to step up on here.’ It was a couple weeks of getting them used to going onto it. Cows are creatures of habit so once they are on it, they really do enjoy the ride,” Harre said.
The decision to make the investment into the new facility and expansion of the dairy operation was the obvious choice for the family.
“That’s what people face in this business is you either get out or get bigger. On our farm, there’s enough of us family and we grain farm a decent amount, but grain farming alone wouldn’t be able to support all of us, just like dairy farming alone wouldn’t support all of us. So, you’re always trying to expand where you can,” Harre said.
The new hybrid barn features a flush system that recycles water, manure and the sand bedding in the barn.
Several times a day, a flush pump set in each side of the barn pops up and sends water down the alleyways.
That flow carries manure out of the barn and underground into a sand lane. As the water slows, bedding sand from the alley settles out.
The manure and liquids move to two consecutive settling pits, where the solids settle out.
In a third-stage pit, a floating pump sends the cleaner water up to a holding tank near the barn. That water is reused to flush the alleys.
Harre takes the settled sand out of the sand lane, dries and airs it out and then that cleaned sand is reused for bedding.
“Two or three times a year, the manure in the settling pits will be removed and knifed into our crop fields, so we save on fertilizer,” Harre said.
Since cows are the literal butter, or at least the fluid milk, of the Harre family’s bread and butter, their health and comfort is paramount.
One of the big benefits of the new system, from the rotary milking parlor to the new hybrid barn, is an improved ability to both monitor cow health and improve it.
The rotary milking parlor is computerized and gathers real-time information on each cow as it enters the carousel.
“All of the milking data is real time of what is going on in the parlor, the cow’s number, what group she’s in, average volume, trend in volume. The parlor has conductivity meters, which can be used as an indicator of health issues, such as early-onset mastitis. It gives you real-time conductivity readings of the milk flowing,” Harre said.
Even the former milking parlor has been recycled. It serves as the nurse parlor, where cows who are being treated for illness or injury, and whose milk cannot be put into the bulk tank, are milked. Their milk is pasteurized with a mobile pasteurizer and fed to bottle calves.
The new hybrid barn has a focus on cow comfort and health. The building is a positive-pressure barn, where fresh air is blown into the barn. Fans and sprinklers also add to cow comfort.
“This barn has temperature and humidity sensors. There is a heat index for cows, and based on certain thresholds, fans turn on at a certain speed. If the heat index goes up, the fans speed up. If it hits another point, the sprinklers go on. Hits the next point, the sprinklers cycle faster,” Harre said.
Even the proximity of the new parlor to the new barn has improved cow comfort and health.
“The most important thing is getting the cows milked and back here, where they can eat and lay down,” Harre said.
Cows move from the new barn through an alleyway into the milking parlor, where they enter the rotary milker one by one. When they are done, they move out through an electronic gate and back to the barn.
“I did the math a month or so ago. A cow’s lactation is usually 305 days. During one lactation, in the new setup, these cows get to spend almost 30 more days back in the barn. They walk 35 fewer miles. From the old barn to the old parlor might not seem like a lot, but when you are talking three times a day, over 305 days, they have 30 more days in the barn with food, drink, company and bedding,” Harre said.