In the quest for a more sustainable—and profitable—glass of milk, many dairy farms in Wisconsin are switching from feedlot-based operations to rotational grazing on prairie grasses and legumes like clover. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, as of 2011 around 3,000 farms had adopted rotational grazing, which involves dividing up large pasture areas into small paddocks of a few acres and rotating herds of cows from one paddock to the next as they forage for food.
Rotational grazing takes advantage of the natural relationship with the land ruminants have developed over hundreds of thousands of years: cattle receive a steady, easy-to-digest source of food while occasionally “trimming” grassland vegetation. Grazing renews plant energy reserves by stimulating new growth, which in turn rebuilds and deepens root systems. Animal waste is effectively spread throughout grazing areas, supporting plant growth and lessening the possibility of nutrient runoff.
In this way, farmers can realize a savings in feed costs during grazing season, and cows are less likely to become sick or infected with parasites due to their varied diet and frequent movement from paddock to paddock. Sustained rotational grazing can even contribute to the re-establishment of ground-nesting birds like upland sandpipers and meadowlarks.
It’s a balancing act to be sure, but one that is paying off in better product and healthier animals for dairy and beef farms across Wisconsin and the United States. However, one perennial problem farmers encounter is the lack of a tree canopy in the forage areas, which are oftentimes reclaimed croplands. Shade is important for cows, providing physical relief from heat and reducing the risk of heat stress, which can lead to diminished milk output. But when animals congregate in a few shady areas, overgrazing, soil erosion, and the buildup of animal waste can quickly become a problem.
One hot summer afternoon in 2011, Vince Hundt was looking out at a sweltering herd of beef cattle on his Coon Valley farm. In his thirty plus years of farming, he was used to seeing cows crowded underneath trees in search of relief from the heat. Hundt had been using rotational grazing for years, and he always hated to see his herd suffer in the summer sun. He began to wonder, What if there were an artificial tree that could move from paddock to paddock?
The idea for Shade Haven was born.
Hundt went in search of business partners and didn’t have to look far. He found neighbors and recent college grads Guthrie Knapp (UW–Milwaukee) and Peter Bergquist (UW–Madison), with backgrounds in engineering and architecture respectively, who were willing to apply their talents to create a design that is, in Hundt’s words, “both elegant and functional.”
Working together over the next year, they developed a prototype for a “mobile shade machine” that can be easily moved with the help of a tractor, truck, or ATV, and would provide about 1,200 square feet of relief from the sun (enough for about sixty cows).
The design they settled on had an easy-to-retract, forty-foot-diameter canopy made of 80% polyethylene knitted shade cloth that lays perfectly flat at a height of about ten feet. They constructed the body using galvanized steel tubes and laser-cut steel plates mounted to a three-wheeled frame, and crowned it with a trailer hitch.
Hundt volunteered his herd for the testing phase. “The cattle spent time under it whenever the sun was shining from May through September,” he says. The three innovators found that the black color worked best to absorb sunlight and radiate it upward, thereby creating thermally driven breeze under the canopy where “temperatures [are] at least twenty degrees cooler than in the direct sunlight,” according to Hundt.
They knew they were on to something and continued to refine the design during 2012. In 2013, they sold the first production units. Today, there are 21 Shade Haven units in the field. “It works like a giant oak tree that moves wherever you need it,” says Hundt.
Hundt hopes others will find applications beyond rotational grazing, including providing shade for restaurants, outdoor festivals, parks and other places where temporary shade is needed.