Modernized in Kentucky: ‘The cows are an integral part of our lives’
by Sherry Bunting, adapted from a story that first appeared in Farmshine, Nov. 24, 2016
KENTUCKY — Chaney’s Dairy Barn is a welcoming place just outside Bowling Green, Kentucky — made even more welcoming to visitors last November.
The icons of the business — happy Jersey cows and America’s “happy food” ice cream — were appreciated by 30 visiting dairy producers from over a dozen states as they toured the Chaney Dairy Farm, as well as the ice cream shop and restaurant, after a nearby gathering of the National Dairy Leaders Coalition.
In addition to organized group tours of the farm, the Chaney family recently added self-guided tours, where visitors can walk down the lane connecting the farm and restaurant/ice-cream parlor to the visitor’s center attached to the bedded pack barn with a great view of the Lely Robot room behind the glass wall on the main floor.
Upstairs, visitors can look down over the compost bedded pack barn and watch 50 to 60 Jersey cows doing their thing – sleeping, eating, walking up to the robot for milking, scratching an itch at the rotating grooming brush, placidly chewing their cud (or playing with their tongues, as Jerseys are known to do).
The consumer connections brought on by the ice cream business, has, in fact, energized the next generation to find a way to keep the Chaney dairy legacy going. This Century Farm in western Kentucky has been in the family since 1888. James R. Chaney, Sr., was born here, and it was he who started dairying here with the purchase of the first two registered Jersey cows in the 1940s.
That led to the two queen Jerseys who put Chaney Dairy Farm on the map. Althea and Topsy are known worldwide by Jersey breeders and helped position James Chaney for his Master Breeder award from the American Jersey Association in 2003.
That same year, James’ son Carl and wife Debra opened Chaney’s Dairy Barn, where they have served ice cream to 70,000 guests to-date. It was a two-year process of looking at what other small farms were doing to remain viable. Carl knew the farm needed to diversify in order to survive.
Through the ups and downs of the dairy and crop markets, the Chaneys had sold three-fourths of their land and half the herd. Downsized to 52 registered Jerseys, they looked for ways to preserve the small herd on their smaller remaining acreage. They visited other small dairies for ideas. They kept seeing ice cream as what others started with when diversifying into processing.
Their location on a main road near a college town certainly helped firm the idea.
Carl took the Penn State Ice Cream Course, which gave him the confidence to move forward with Chaney’s Dairy Barn. They carved out three acres for the building along the road front, and in view of the farm buildings.
Voted number one for homemade ice cream in Kentucky, the Chaneys have given the enterprise their personal touch with 32 flavors, including a local favorite they’ve dubbed “Big Red Rumble” for Western Kentucky University.
It’s a decadent white chocolate ice cream swirled with red velvet cake and chocolate chunks.
As the younger generation spoke with visiting dairy producers, they shared their hope of one day bottling their own milk and making dairy products with their own milk processed from their own Jersey cows, which currently is sold into the local fluid milk market.
For now, the shell of a future processing building has been constructed along with the new bedded pack barn and robot what were completed a year ago (April 2016).
The Chaney family has been deliberate in taking each new step without rushing into anything. The modernization of the farm came 13 years after opening of the ice cream parlor with the combination of food and agrotourism providing a second revenue stream for the farm.
“You do what you have to do to get the work done,” Carl said in the video shown to guests. But there also comes a point where “you just can’t keep fixing things anymore.”
Cow care was getting difficult for him on his own, especially over winter, and the children had other careers – Jessica has a family of her own and helps Debra on the business side of things with the store; James Neale, a welder, has his own company, but builds things around the farm, and Elizabeth, the entrepreneur, has a job with All-Tech. She helps with many aspects of the farm in her free time, including feeding the calves.
Four years ago, Carl and Debra brought the family together and informed them it was time to make a change. They were going to sell the cows and just run the ice cream business.
“From a young age, our lives revolved around the dairy cow. The cows are an integral part of our lives,” Elizabeth explained. “We weren’t okay with that idea.”
Simpy put: The kids did not want the cows to leave, but neither did they view themselves as the cow people needed to take on the dairy responsibilities if the investments were made to start from scratch and build new facilities with new technologies.
They knew that if the dairy legacy would continue here, it was up to them to figure out how. They spent four years looking at robots, but first had to figure out who was coming back to the farm to manage the deal.
They needed a cow person. And they found her in cousin Dorothea ”Dore” Baker.
Dore relocated from New York and started as herd manager at Chaney Dairy Farm in Kentucky in 2014, two years before robotic milking was implemented.
She talked with the visiting dairy producers about her role in managing the dairy with its legacy herd of purebred Jerseys. She grew up with registered Jerseys on the Chamberlain Dairy Farm in New York.
It was obvious to all. This gal loves cows. Eats, sleeps and breathes them, in fact.
When one dairyman asked how much time she spends with the cows, she said 24/7 because I live upstairs.”
Actually, she explained that she’s here all of the time, “but the difference is that now I am getting more sleep and I’m in a better frame of mind. I love this robot, and our local dealer has been so helpful.”
She does everything cow-related. She tills the bedded pack 3 times a day, assists births, does all the herd health, breeding, and stays after the fresh cows, being sure they are getting milked.
“Yes, I don’t have much of a social life,” she said. “But I just love it. The day to day interaction with these little brown cows is the best part. I love seeing a heifer calf out of a favorite cow grow and develop, and to see the love and enthusiasm of young kids when they learn something new about cows or about the dairy industry.”
Since operating the robot, the herd is already averaging 3.3 to 3.5 times a day milking, with some milking 4x voluntarily. The average number of refused visits is 2x/day. They program the robot to accept cows nearing dryoff only twice a day for milking
The modernization has increased milk production from 52 pounds/cow/day when they milked 2x to 60 to 70 pounds/cow/day with the compost pack and robot. Fat runs 5% and protein 3.7. Consistent improvement in performance is happening as the herd’s days in milk decline with the spring freshenings.
“We know the potential these girls have,” says Dore, noting that comfort after calving is a critical part of helping cows reach their genetic potential. She uses Udder Comfort on all fresh cows/heifers for the first few days after calving.
“It softens the edema and helps with any skin chapping,” she explains, noting that she has used the product for fresh cows ever since her high school milking days in New York.
With the robot, things are a bit different. “I’ll spray each quarter as each cup is removed robotically, or, since we have a relatively docile herd and the spray involves little contact, I’ll apply it in the alley after they’ve exited the robot. It is calming and especially helps settle fresh heifers, a pleasant outcome for heifers that can be uncomfortable as they get accustomed to the rest of the milking process.”
Aside from “loving the smell,” Dore finds Udder Comfort to be effective as just one of the ways cow comfort and milk quality are managed.
“The two main things that contribute to cow comfort here are the pack barn and the robotic milker,” she relates. “Our compost pack is a one-size-fits-all environment. The largest cow in our herd can sleep as comfortably as the smallest. We’ve allotted 116 sq ft/cow on the pack if our barn were at 60 cows, which is more than the minimum recommendation.”
Dore says that providing more space per cow means less frequent additions of sawdust to the pack, and the cows stay cleaner. “We like to keep our herd number at or below 60 cows, because we’ve seen more frequent milk visits (to the robot) with higher production when we’re not overcrowding.”
Robotic milking has also “aided tremendously in cow comfort, because the cows are no longer spending time in a holding pen without access to feed, water, or a place to lay down. Cows are able to move around more freely as they’re waiting for their turn to be milked.”
Since start up in June, Dore has also noticed a reduction or elimination of “flight zones” among the more nervous cows in the herd.
“It’s pretty satisfying to find yourself petting a cow that last year wouldn’t let you near her with a 10-foot pole!” she relates.
In addition to the robot and bedded pack, the facility utilizes thermostatically-controlled fans, sprinklers, and curtains to keep the girls cool and “keep some of the crazy Kentucky weather off of them,” Dore adds.
The calmness of the barn and comfort of the pack has also led to what Dore refers to as “the quality and depth the cows sleep.
“You can walk through the cows on the pack and have multiple girls sleep uninterrupted as you walking directly in front of them,” she explains. “Another bonus to the bedded pack is you never have to worry about having any alley rats. Cows don’t have to learn to use a pack like they have to learn to use a free stall, and that’s a stress reliever for me.”
Dore explained the initial process of training the herd to milk robotically: “We put them through the gate and fed them, but no milking. The next time, we introduced them to the robot and the third time we allowed it to milk them.”
Elizabeth noted that the tendency is to want to push the cows into the robot at first, but the experts kept stressing to “let the technology do its thing and let the cows get used to it on their own,” she said.
Carl can’t really keep himself away from the cows completely, but he has put his trust in Dore who started managing the herd before the Lely robot arrived.
In fact, things are going so smoothly, Carl and Debra took an anniversary trip they had long postponed, so we didn’t get to meet them in our time at Chaney Dairy. Elizabeth and Dore showed us around, and their positive energy and determined thinking were appreciated.
While visitors now get to see robotic milking and cows laying around looking like they take care of themselves, the wall murals and video show what it takes to keep cows healthy and comfortable and the amount of work required to tend to their daily needs.
“We’re proud to be producers of a wholesome product,” says Elizabeth. “Our father, grandfather and great-grandfather gave their lives to this farm, so it is also important to us to keep that legacy alive. Milk production is not just a business, but a way of life that we love.”