By Joann Pipkin
Like many family farms in the state, Lloyd and Jane Gunter’s Webster County, Mo., dairy operation was at a pivotal point.
Lloyd started dairying in 1967. He purchased his farm and existing facilities in 1973. While some improvements and additions had been made over the years, barns and other aspects of the operation needed a facelift. When son David and his family — wife Courtney and children Jackson, Noah and Hannah —joined the operation; expansion was on the horizon. Still, profitability was undeniably the bottom line. In the photo above in the front row are David Gunter, along with his mom, Jane Gunter. In the back row are NRCS area engineer John Feistner (left), Webster Country, Mo., NRCS resource conservationist Mark Emerson and dairy farmer Lloyd Gunter.
“If you’re not moving forward, then you’re not going anywhere,” David says. “So we had to do something to stay profitable and keep the farm moving in the right direction.”
Benefits of the barn
Both Lloyd and David learned about pack barns from other dairy producers in Minnesota and Virginia. With sawdust as bedding, David says the barns provide more natural accommodations for the cows than conventional systems. Cows are protected from outside elements, are cleaner and more comfortable, and have constant access to feed and water. The pack barn had also been recommended to the Gunters as a way to preserve nutrients and reduce runoff.
“We don’t want the runoff to come from our land and get into the Niangua River,” Lloyd says. “We want to keep the water as clean as we can so when it does run off our land, we want it to be good, clean water.”
Because the bedding inside the barn is tilled daily, it composts — providing an environmentally friendly fertilizer for the Gunters’ pasture and crop ground.
“That will, hopefully, help cut down on our commercial fertilizer use,” David says. “It also will help add organic material to the soils and be a more favorable fertilizer for the environment.”
So, for the Gunters, the decision to build a pack barn with a solid separator was not only a viable option for sustaining their dairy, but also a sound decision for being good stewards of their land.
DRY MEAL: Cows enjoy eating when protected from the weather elements at Gunter Dairy in southwest Missouri. There is less feed loss when feeding under roof. Any leftovers are actually recycled as feed for dry cows.
Difference in dairy cows
Having completed the pack barn in October 2017, the Gunters are already pleased with the results they’re seeing from their dairy cows.
“We’ve jumped almost 10 pounds a cow per day,” David reports. “We’re really noticing it on our 2-year-olds. Plus, we’re not having the variance or fluctuations in our milk production.”
Because the Gunters’ herd is maintained in a more constant environment, Lloyd says they aren’t using extra energy to stay warm when it snows. “So that energy can stay in the barn. They’re putting that back into producing milk.”
Coming out of a winter that never seemed to end, that’s been especially important to the Gunters. “It was a very good example of why we need a barn like this — because it kept the cows comfortable, kept them happy and kept them producing milk,” Lloyd says.
The family is also anxious to realize the benefits of the pack barn system this summer, when heat and humidity ramp up.
“Engineers put quite a bit of effort into the lay of the barn, so that it gets the south wind in the summer and is protected from the north wind in the winter,” Jane says. Three giant fans help circulate the air inside the pack barn, helping ensure the cows stay comfortable year-round.
WASTE NOT: A flush system washes waste into a solid separating pit. The “pull-plug” system allows liquid to flow from the solid separator into the lagoon, where it is recycled to flush and clean the facility once daily.
Project pros and cons
Increased labor costs have been one downside for the Gunters since switching to the pack barn system. The bedding (pack) must be tilled, and the cows must be fed twice daily, a change from the family’s previous grazing system.
Still, the family is saving on feed cost, Lloyd says.
“We’re saving at least 20%, maybe 30%, of the hay we would feed outside,” he says, noting reduced waste in silage consumption, too. “And then, if we clean out the trough of the pack barn, that feed goes to our dry cows. It’s working as a dual purpose, because what feed is not used here is used somewhere else.”
In addition to the feeding floor, the Gunters’ pack barn includes a flush system, which they installed to wash waste into a solid separating pit. David says their existing lagoon, built in the 1990s, was not created for solids. With its unique “pull-plug” system, liquid from the solid separator goes into the lagoon and then is recycled, to flush and clean the facility once daily.
Focus on farm future
Longtime cooperators with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Webster County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Gunters worked with area engineer John Feistner and resource conservationist Mark Emerson on the pack barn project — which took close to two years, start to finish. The Gunters received assistance for a portion of the project from the National Water Quality Initiative-Givins Branch of the Niangua River as well as the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives program.
“We’re losing dairy farmers in Missouri, and if we can come up with systems like this to help dairy farmers better their lifestyle and get more milk out of cows, benefit Missouri as a whole, then we can keep more dairy farmers in the state,” Lloyd says.
Investments in facilities like the Gunters’ pack barn system are often not easy decisions. Yet, for Lloyd Gunter, it was one he knew was right for the environment and for the sustainability of his family’s farm.
“This is one way we can keep the younger generation on the farm,” Lloyd says. “We need to do it, every time we can do something like that — to help keep our younger generation on the farm.
“We’re really excited about this whole system,” he adds. “You look at our cows, see how happy our cows are, you’ve got the storyteller right there.”
Pipkin, an agricultural journalist, farms with her family in Republic, Mo.