Better Barns for Dairy

Gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 left the tiny nation of Moldova with plenty of barns and other structures from former collective farms—but not enough money or expertise to catch up with modern agricultural practices.

In recent years, however, capital has been flowing into Moldova’s dairy industry—and with it, a desire to upgrade old Soviet facilities. Most of them consist of tie stall barns housing a maximum of about 100 cows each, and milking is done with bucket milkers. Between securing, feeding and milking the cows, such facilities require significantly more labor than the freestall barns and milking parlors commonly used in the United States and elsewhere.

That’s where CALS can help. Biological systems engineering professor and UW-Extension specialist Brian Holmes recently spent two weeks in Moldova under the auspices of CNFA, a nonprofit that focuses on rural economic growth in developing countries. Holmes visited four dairy farms and provided hands-on training and presentations on everything from building ventilation, freestall barn arrangements and milking parlor design to feed
storage and manure management.

Because capital is still limited, dairy farmers often have to make decisions based on thriftiness rather than on labor efficiency or the benefit of the cow, Holmes says. Upgrades often come through remodeling existing facilities rather than building new ones—and therein lies the challenge.

But Holmes was able to provide options that farmers can put into practice even under resource constraints. “Producers who implement these recommendations should expect to see improved animal performance, reduced labor costs, improved profits and improved environmental protection,” Holmes says.

Sudden change in how a society is governed does not necessarily result in sudden change in how people behave, Holmes observes. “The old ways and ‘the way we’ve always done things’ persists for extended periods,” he says.

For example, some of his recommendations require farmers to think in new ways about animal care.

“A classic situation is to convince the dairy operator that the prefabricated concrete sidewall panels should be removed for good summer ventilation and to use curtains to close the sidewalls in winter,” says Holmes. “There’s a strong belief that cold temperatures are detrimental to cows and that they should be kept warm in winter.”

There’s still much work to be done in the former Soviet Union, and not just in Moldova, Holmes says—and he’s ready to keep doing his part. Earlier this year he traveled to Belarus and worked with dairy farmers who had very similar needs and goals.