It's not your usual tourist attraction. But approximately 85 out-of-towners converged at the Hillcrest Farms in Dearing last week for a tour of a new free-stall barn with its own manure management system.
Owned and managed by Billy Rodgers and his sons, Mark and Andy, the dairy farm received assistance through a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to build the barn, which is 61,000 square feet. The NRCS and the Rodgers held a tour for other livestock producers who could benefit from the environmentally-friendly farm production.
"This barn is a mix and match of about 20 different farms that I, my brother and my dad went and looked at," Mark said to the group. "We appreciate all of them telling us what they'd do different if they had to build again."
Hillcrest Farms spans 1,200 acres on which are approximately 830 Holsteins, including milk cows, calves and replacements.
They average milking 350 at a time, with Mark overseeing the dairy herd and milk production and Andy managing the crops, construction projects, farm equipment and accounting.
"I'm basically retired now, and mostly I just drive a tractor when they tell me to," Billy said.
The Rodgers never have to wait "until the cows come home," with the new total-confinement barn, which was designed with the cows' comfort in mind. Sand is used for bedding because it is more comfortable for the cows and harbors no bacteria. Running east to west, the barn's roof keeps the cows out of the Georgia summer sun. One hundred fans and misters keep them cool. Rubber flooring provides better traction for the cows and controls wear and tear on their hooves.
"The main goal is to provide cow comfort to increase production," Andy said.
The milking cows eat approximately 36,000 pounds of feed per day, almost all of which is grown on the Rodgers' farm. Each cow gives approximately nine gallons of milk each day, totaling approximately 6,750 gallons every two days.
Not only do they live in comfort, but the cows' living conditions also are kept clean to eliminate any bacteria.
The sand in the stalls is flushed out every day, where it goes through a cleaning and drying process for two weeks before being reused.
"The sand looks as clean as it did the day it came," Andy said.
All the water used to flush the sand and wash out the barn goes through a solid separator. After processing, both the solids and the water are returned to the land at agronomic rates.
"Our waste water system is probably as big as, if not bigger than, the city of Thomson's," Mark said.
The system allows approximately 90 percent of the sand to be reused in the barn. The water is reused for irrigation and to flush the system.
"It's a complete, continuous cycle, with the grain crops being mixed into food for the cows, then the cow manure being flushed out and used as fertilizer, and the flush water being used for irrigation to grow more grain," said Dena Roberts, a NRCS engineer who designed the management system and was on hand at the tour to answer questions.
McDuffie County Extension Agent Frank Watson said the Rodgers farm is the only one in the area with a total confinement barn and manure management system. He was glad to have the tour for other farmers, no matter what type of operation they have.
"Even if they're not dairy farmers, or if they're not considering doing this, just seeing ways this farm handles waste will be a help to them and they can take some ideas to their farm," he said.