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Clinton County farm benefits from computers

Milking over 1,200 head of cattle might have some people thinking that the Schrack Dairy Farm in Clinton County qualifies as an agribusiness — which just makes Jim Harbach, whose family runs the farm, really mad.

He and his wife’s family have run the farm since the 1700s. Its roots may be in the18th century, but its day-to-day operations are secure in the latest farming technology.

Harbach could talk for hours about the ways in which the farm uses modern technology to improve operations, a move his father-in-law embraced around 40 years ago.

The milk producing facility at the farm is totally computerized, Harbach shared.

“It has milk meters that meter the milk from each cow so that we actually know the electro-conductivity of the milk, how thick or thin it is. That tells a lot of things about the health of the cow and the quality of the milk,” he said. “We monitor that — every cow, every day, every milking.”

“We have the ability to sort the cattle when they leave there through a sort gate, so that there is not a lot of interaction. This enables the cows that have some issues to receive the treatment they need,” he added.

Once the cows have been milked, the milk then goes to a stainless steel plate cooler that has milk on one side and water on the other side. There, the milk is cooled by ground water, spring or well water that is maintained at 55 degrees.

“It’s like a radiator on a car,” Harbach explained. “The cold water on this side takes the heat off the milk on the other side.”

It takes two gallons of water to cool one gallon of milk.

“We use that technology in the (milking) parlor where we take the coolness of the water to chill the milk. We can take 100-degree milk and cool it down to 33 to 34 degrees in seconds,” he said.

The milk is then loaded on to one of the farm’s trailers and is sent to the dairy where it is processed. The dairy washes the trailer and sends it back to the farm. Unlike many farms, milk from Schrack’s is not hauled in a tank truck.

To run a farm the size of Schrack’s requires a lot of electricity. To keep costs down, the engine that powers the generator that produces electricity for the whole operation runs solely off methane produced by the cows’ manure.

The generator produces 200 kilowatts of electricity every hour, so in the course of a day that 5,000 kilowatts of electricity is enough for 30 to 40 homes, he said.

“In the summertime, we have a lot of fans and a sprinkler system that keeps them cool,” he said. On a hot summer day, he noted, “They’re a lot more comfortable than we are today.”

In order to keep the cows from becoming heat stressed, they’re sprayed with water and there are fans running over them in the barns continually.

“It’s just like they’re on the beach all the time,” he joked.

The long-term goal is to keep the cows comfortable in order to not decrease milk production.

“Even with all the fans running, that system produces enough electricity for the entire facility,” he added.

The system he is speaking of begins with a methane digester. Harbach described it as essentially a concrete bathtub in the ground, measuring 50 feet wide, 150 feet long and 14 feet deep. It holds 21 days of production (manure) from 1,250 cows, Harbach explained.

The manure is collected from the barns and placed in the digester. By the 14th day, the manure has produced the most gas and by day 21 the gas production has been fairly depleted.

The manure is put in the digester every day so the cycle is continuous.

“You need something with a 21-day retention time. That’s why it has to be that size,” he said.

Inside the digester there is a system of pipes that circulates water to maintain the temperature of the materials at a cow’s body temperature, which is about 100 degrees.

“The digestion that was happening in the cow’s stomach is continuing to happen in the tank,” Harbach said. “It breaks down the fiber a little bit, but not a lot.”

The digester also takes some of the organic nitrogen in the materials and turns it into an ammoniated nitrogen, which is applied as a liquid on the fields on the farm to enrich the soil. When the solids that are left in the digester are put through a screw press and then dried, they are used for bedding in the barns.

“Dissect cow manure, take the liquid out and it goes back to what they ate, the hay,” he said.

Although that may seem disgusting to many people, Harbach argued that “we need to get past it.”

He contended that in the throw-away society of today, “We can do a better job in agriculture.”

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