After breeding heifers one by one through a working chute in Iowa’s frequent windstorms for several months, David Porterfield often thought there had to be a better, more efficient way to manage Koenen Dairy’s breeding-age heifers. Porterfield, then an A.I. technician for Semex, knew his stops to breed heifers at the dairy in Hawarden, Iowa, were taking up too much time – both his own and the dairy producer’s.
“I told the dairy owner, ‘It would be nice if we had something to keep us out of the weather.’ He took me up on it,” Porterfield says.
The dairy owner also hired Porterfield as the dairy’s herdsman. One of the first improvements Porterfield suggested was converting a nearby cattle feed-out barn into a heifer breeding area. Porterfield couldn’t be more happy with the results because now he’s saving time, reducing labor and more effectively breeding the dairy’s heifers.
“Our dairy’s biggest challenge is trying to make everything work with the amount of space we have and our number of cattle,” Porterfield says.
Greg Koenen began Koenen Dairy in 1992 on an older dairy farm plot. Then, Greg had just 18 cows and a love for good, solid dairy genetics. Today, after several herd expansions and strong internal growth, the 750-cow dairy continues to emphasize growing quality replacements from within.
The dairy’s calves are kept on the farm until weaning or 45 days old. During that time, they are fed pasteurized hospital milk, grain starter and water. After weaning, the heifers are moved to another location less than a mile from the dairy and graduate from one group pen to another until they are 12 months old. Then the heifers are combined into groups of 40 and stocked in the dairy’s newly converted breeding barn.
Before it became the dairy’s breeding barn, it was a beef cattle feeding pen with slatted floors. Porterfield suggested the dairy find a way to utilize the space. He admits he first thought the barn’s major advantage was its roof, but he’s since discovered the renovated space saves time.
Porterfield equipped each side of the barn’s four pens with stanchion lines. The breeding barn stage of heifer development is the first time the heifers are introduced to stanchions, and the lock-ups save time. Porterfield said he can check for heats and breed a group of 40 cows in less than 20 minutes. The same task before the barn would have taken several hours, Porterfield says.
“This way when they’re fed, headlocks are thrown and I come along later,” Porterfield says. “It’s very efficient.”
With the new facility, the dairy has increased the intensity of its timed A.I. breeding protocols for heifers. If a heifer shows a good heat at 13 months old, Porterfield will breed her, but he also says by 14 months old all heifers are on Ovsynch with CIDRs. The pay off has come in the form of high conception rates. The dairy currently gets 80 to 90 percent conception rates for first-service heifers.
Before the barn, working with the breeding-age heifers required two employees – one to corral the animals and the other to work with them. Now the dairy has just one full-time employee in charge of feeding, breeding and manure removal. The slats in the floor, now covered with rubber matting, minimize the time the full-time employee spends removing manure.
“Our labor to run the breeding program has been cut down to a one-man job,” Porterfield says.
More effective breeding
Porterfield says he’s noticed since the dairy started using the breeding barn that the heifers have been more relaxed and calm. He attributes the attitude change to the increased amount of physical contact the breeding-age heifers get from employees.
“Hands down, this way is going to get them into milk earlier than before,” Porterfield said.
Most heifers stay in the breeding area for a total of two to three months. Once an entire pen or about 40 animals have been confirmed pregnant, they move to another part of the dairy for pre-fresh cows.
Porterfield believes other producers can find ways to effectively utilize space and unused facilities.
“More or less, it just comes down to how creative you can get,” Porterfield says. “There’s always a bunch of what-ifs, but I don’t think any of them are ever too stupid or dumb. You just have to kick them around and see what happens.” PD