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Consider once-a-day milking
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Consider once-a-day milking

Cliff Hawbaker owns two 150-cow dairies in south-central Pennsylvania, where he ships organic and grass-fed milk. He initially had all his cattle on one operation. But in 2006 he bought a satellite farm when he thought two 150-cow grazing dairies would be easier to manage separately. He decided to try once-a-day milking because of labor issues on his newly purchased satellite farm.

“It was a challenge for me because prior to that we had milked three times daily on our home farm for 18 years,” Hawbaker said. “It was really a trial-and-error thing because there were very few farms doing this in 2006.”

After an incident with an absentee employee in 2010, he switched his home farm to once-a-day milking and now operates both farms under the system. With 14 years of experience on his satellite farm and 10 on his home operation with once-a-day milking, he offers insights to others. Through the years he’s received frequent questions.

The No. 1 concern people have as they examine the possibility of switching to once-a-day dairying is somatic-cell count and mastitis issues, Hawbaker said. His recent cell count was 200,000 and 140,000 on his respective operations. When somatic-cell-count levels reach 250,000 the entire herd is sampled to determine what cows are driving the increase.

“The secret that I have found to control (somatic-cell count) is that cows must be milked out completely,” he said.

A cow should be thoroughly emptied of milk and the udder completely collapsed to keep a desirable somatic-cell count and keep mastitis to a minimum.

He also fields frequent questions regarding adjusting the feeding program when switching to once-a-day milking. He says to plan on losing 25 percent to 30 percent of milk production when moving to once-a-day milking. Anyone considering it for a farm should make the move and try it.

“The cows will adjust a whole lot quicker than we will as operators,” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift. It’s ok for production to drop as long as expenses drop accordingly.”

For producers who milk twice daily, their milking time won’t necessarily be cut in half by moving to once per day. But a farm’s paid labor needs to be considered; labor will need to be redirected because less time is spent in the milking parlor.

A small farm milking fewer than 100 cows is a good prospect for the change.

“(Once-a-day milking) works well here because you’re not burning both ends of the day milking cows and the bonus is you can have a social life,” he said.

Under Hawbaker’s system his 150-cow herd became a one-man operation with a six- to eight-hour work day. He currently has one employee who punches in at 8 a.m.; that employee takes care of some feeding and cattle moving before finishing the day by doing the daily milking, punching out about 3 p.m. He said the system gives him a lot of flexibility for engaging in non-farm activities.

A producer needs to have financial lenders on board with the move to once-a-day milking.

“When you reduce income, it puts up a red flag for lenders,” he said. “A lender needs to know where the money will come from to service a farm’s commitments. Expenses must drop accordingly when income is reduced.”

Thelma Heidel-Baker and Ricky Baker at Bossie Cow Farm near Random Lake, Wisconsin, bought a 60-cow dairy herd from her parents in 2017, and currently rent the 84 grazing acres associated with it. He’s the full-time farmer while she works off the farm. He’s been an out-of-the-box thinker since the beginning, running his organic grass-only no-grain dairy. The only piece of machinery he owns is a bale processor.

“(I’m) allergic to tractors,” he said. “We have a very minimalist approach and so far it’s working.”

This year Baker switched to once-a-day milking.

“We’re not interested in having employees at this point,” he said. “We have two small children and Thelma’s off-farm employment provides much of our personal living income. This gives us more flexibility in how we run the farm.”

From a lifestyle standpoint with a young family he can’t imagine going back to twice-daily milking, he said. He believes each farm has its own set of circumstances that makes management changes feasible. For Bossie Cow Farm, once-a-day milking is a good fit.

“It helps that our cow loan is our only financial burden,” he said.

Baker milks his herd in a retro-fitted swing parlor with automatic take-offs. He maintains a somatic-cell count of 150,000 to 200,000, and has a split calving season in spring and fall.

“I was nervous about the cell count, but I realized I could always go back to twice-daily milking if the cell count was an issue,” he said. “But it never was. The move to (once-a-day milking) was totally about lifestyle and so far we’re liking the switch.”

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Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.

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