Earlier this year, I spent several hours with Rejean Houle, president of US Farm Systems, in Tulare, California. In addition to telling me about his system for separating manure solids for creating bedding, he answered a few questions I posed to him regarding manure management, bedding and nutrient disposal. Portions of my conversation with Rejean follow.
Q. How long ago did you get started in the business?
I was the first foreman in the shop my dad started. That was 50 years ago.
I’ve always been designing and building equipment. That was a natural for me. I’m never happy with what we’ve got. I always try to make it better. I really believe in pushing the button when you want to clean something. It needs to be all automated with the size of the dairies these days.
Q. What makes California unique regarding manure management?
In California, we have a unique situation. We have seven months without any rain. So it is very easy to make manure bedding during those months. Here you can make bedding different ways than anywhere else in the United States. You can sun-dry [separated manure solids] for bedding.
Q. You offer both one-stage and two-stage manure separator systems. Which do you recommend to dairy producers?
If you want to do the very best job at cleaning your flush water to not have any build-up in your lagoon, you need to have a two-stage separator system. If you go with only a one-stage separator, you will end up with more fines in your lagoon.
With up to 2,000 cows you can do a good job with a single separator, and you can manage it to keep your lagoon clean and everything. But when you jump up to a 6,000- or 8,000-cow dairy, you better get ready for manure. You better have both separators.
Q. What do dairymen do with the fine particles removed with a two-stage separator?
The fines are exported as fertilizer. They use them as organic fertilizer on other fields on the dairy. The problem with a big dairy is there is always not enough acres for the number of cows you choose to milk. This is why it is important to have a way to export those nutrients.
The products you sell address many issues of cow comfort. Tell me about the importance of cow comfort and cow health.
God has not made the cow to give 90 pounds of milk per day. If you go from 90 pounds to 50 pounds (like the cow used to give), the cows didn’t have problems with their back legs. If you are overweight, you are going to have feet problems. I’m starting to have feet and leg problems.
It’s like if you have a dog at home. If you buy him a nice bed, he will learn pretty quick to go lie down on that bed, instead of lying on the floor. I guarantee you that you can teach that dog really quick that he is better on the bed than on the floor. It’s the same with cows. If we can teach one cow to be comfortable, we can teach 4,000 cows.
Q. How can you tell if your cows are comfortable?
If you have close to 100 percent occupancy as soon as they are done eating, it tells you that you have good bedding. And if you have only 50 percent occupancy, it tells you that you are doing something really bad. I know some people who decided to buy bedding that was like a waterbed, but when they had only 50 percent of their stalls occupied, and 10 percent of the cows were laying down in the lane, in the manure, on top of rubber that we gave them to walk on, they knew they had a real stall problem.
Q. What reasons do you give dairy producers to sell them on the importance of cow comfort?
Bedding is the most important thing on a new dairy – because if the cow doesn’t lie down, she won’t give you milk.
If she does, she’ll give 10 pounds more milk per day. That’s $300 of profit per cow per year. If a guy has 1,000 cows, he could be missing $300,000 a year. Why be a big dairyman and not do things right? You can have 3,000 cows and end up at the end of the year with $0. The only guy that can survive is the guy that goes and gets those 10 extra pounds.
Q. How frequently should a lagoon be emptied?
As you irrigate your crop, if you can mix 20 percent of lagoon water with 80 percent fresh water, then you can irrigate all the time. You’ve got to be able to empty your storage lagoon during the summer. Once a year, it needs to be completely empty.
Q. How long ago did you start researching manure bedding?
At first, the only reason to put in a separator was for bedding. But when people discovered how important the bedding was they were not able to produce enough. With the cost of transportation, it doesn’t take long to spend thousands of dollars to import bedding. And that creates more waste.
At least when you produce your own bedding with your own manure, you don’t have to import more on your dairy than what you already produce.
Q. Do you think milk production in California will ever decrease?
It won’t decrease. But I think it is saturated. You can’t get permits.
Q. What do you think about California Dairies Inc.’s decision to go “rBST-free’?
Dairy producers should have never used bST to start with. What for? It’s another tool that works against the dairymen. It just floods the market with milk. PD