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Today’s tinkering could be tomorrow’s technology

Doyle Waybright of Mason-Dixon Farms, Gettysburg, Pa., urged dairy producers to “be bold” and to look at failure as a stepping stone to success.

Doyle Waybright of Mason-Dixon Farms delivers inspiration at Precision Dairy Conference

Special for Farmshine

ROCHESTER, Minn. – “Failed efforts are not in vain,” said Doyle Waybright, one of the keynote speakers at Precision Dairy 2013 attended by over 500 people from 24 U.S. states, four Canadian provinces and 24 nations on June 26-27 at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota.

It was the first time the global Precision Dairy Management Conference was held in the U.S., sponsored by the University of Minnesota in a state where precision technologies such as robotic milking and automatic calf feeding are seeing increased interest and adoption on dairy farms.

Known worldwide for their innovations, which Waybright admitted could be described as “tinkering,” Mason-Dixon Farms is nestled just outside of historic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the 150th year since the famous Civil War battle was commemorated last week.

Waybright gave an attentive audience some insight for the future of precision technologies, and he brought some historical perspective and many practical observations.

He explained how Mason Dixon looks for a 7-year payback on most new technologies they trial and/or adopt. And he conceded they consider robotic milking facilities and equipment to be a good investment at a 12-year payback.

While less than half (1050) of the farm’s 2800 dairy cows are milked robotically, the technology has changed the way Mason-Dixon Farms manages the herd, and their breeding decisions.

“We have started selecting for rear teat placement (RTP) and good udders,” said Waybright. “Hoof health is also important.” After all, robotically milked cows need to be motivated to go eat and be milked on their own. They are not being pushed to a milking parlor.

The prevailing attitude at Mason-Dixon Farms is its motto: “Success is optional. Change is inevitable.” Waybright gave many examples of this.

He also encouraged fellow dairy producers to “be bold.”

“Try new things,” he said. “Dare to succeed or dare to fail.”

Waybright explained their philosophy is to view failure not as an “end” but as “the elimination of one option or one pathway to success.”

He explained: “In farming, we must have a can-do attitude, and view failure as a stepping stone to success.” He explained further that a lot of the Waybright Family’s innovations and “tinkering” at Mason-Dixon Farms began in the equipment shop with Doyle’s uncle Horace back in the 1970s. Because they farm on marginal lands, they wanted to optimize their crop yields and wanted to improve the equipment available in the 70s and 80s to prevent soil compaction and crop loss.

Of course, Mason-Dixon Farms is also known for having the first and longest running methane digester, which began generating electricity for the operation in 1979.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the cow and heifer facilities went through modifications, and in 2005, they built the first of their two 500-cow robotic milking barns. Today, the farm has 20 robots milking 1050 cows.

In keeping with his outlook on failure being a stepping stone to success, Waybright recalled the 1969 decision to build an enclosed and heated calf barn. It had the best of all the latest ideas of its time, but the Waybrights found it was the worst idea for raising their calves. Morbidity and mortality rates rose, and six years later when the family was “desperate to increase herd size” ahead of the construction of their methane digester, they deserted that new heifer barn and went to the wooden outdoor group hutches.
Today, wet calves are housed individually at Mason-Dixon Farms, and then go to small groups in those rows of outdoor group-hutches.

Waybright confirmed that this summer, Mason-Dixon Farms will experiment with group calf feeding trials (wet calves), and they will have an intern dedicated to this research.

“We want to see if this can be profitable. It takes patience and perseverance to calve heifers at 23 months and get 1.7 pounds of average daily gain on calves with 1% mortality,” he said, rattling off the farm’s current heifer-raising statistics. But we are looking at Mike VanAmburgh’s 2.0 pounds of average daily gain data and want to see if group feeding can improve our labor efficiencies and our calf growth.”

“New technologies are sustainable when they improve cow performance and welfare and farmer welfare,” said Waybright.

In addition to his forward-looking talk on how Mason-Dixon Farms views the sustainability of new precision technologies in dairy farming, Waybright also honored his hometown and the 150-year remembrance of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. During his introduction at the conference here in Rochester on June 26, he began with his own ‘Gettysburg Address,’ a commentary on dairy farming past, present and future interwoven with a history of innovation and progress as well as failures on the way to success.

The ninth generation dairyman told the crowd of fellow dairy producers, researchers and industry persons that he wrote this “preamble” to his regularly scheduled Precision Dairy presentation on technology and dairy sustainability when he was called out of bed on a Sunday morning by the herdsman to address a problem at the dairy.

In keeping with the Mason-Dixon Farm’s motto that “Success is optional, change is inevitable,” Waybright used those early morning hours on that Sunday morning at the farm to ponder Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and compose these parallel thoughts.

He ultimately shared them with 500 global attendees at Precision Dairy 2013 in Minnesota, dubbed Doyle Waybright’s Gettysburg Address:

“Thirteen score and five years ago my forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new farm, conceived in the frontier of Penns Woods and dedicated to the proposition that a family can live off the land.

Now we are engaged in producing milk, testing whether that farm or any farm so conceived and so dedicated can long endure in our current economy. We are met with great challenges in that effort.

We are dedicated to produce high quality milk using new technologies and precision farming. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, are we sustainable?

Far above our poor power to add or detract to new technologies, our brave efforts are consecrated in struggles.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we tried and failed at, but it will never forget what our successes were here.

It is for us the dairymen, rather, to be dedicated here to the ongoing effort to this unfinished work which they who have tried thus far so nobly advanced.”