The old limestone barn had likely stood on the Kastenschmidt family farm for decades before Doug’s great-grandfather purchased the farm in 1953. The outside appearance has not changed much over the years, but inside it has gone from stanchions to a parlor to robotics.

Freelance Writer
Boylen is a freelance writer based in northeast Iowa.

Doug and Micki Kastenschmidt were milking in a parlor built in 2001 on their farm near Ripon, Wisconsin. Micki did most of the milking, along with hired help, but she had repeated back surgeries and it was difficult to find good, consistent hired help.

Doug and Micki Kastenschmidt“We decided we needed to go another route,” Doug Kastenschmidt says.

A brand-new facility for robotics was not a feasible option, so they decided to make what they had work; their two robotic milking units are now on two different ends of their old barn.

“We knew the only way we could make it work was to manage the facilities that were already here; our options were pretty limited as to where to put the robots,” he says.


The old barn was about 34 by 100 feet. Up until 2001, the Kastenschmidts milked their cows in 50 stanchions, but the cows have been housed in a freestall barn since the early 1970s.

One of the robotic units was put where there had been stanchions, and the other was put in an area that was used for storage. Their freestall barn was still working well for them, so that was incorporated into the retrofit design of the robotics.

They did not need to change their manure handling or storage, and their feeding system also remained the same.

“We didn’t tour many [robotic farms] before going ahead with ours; there weren’t that many around us and those that were had new construction,” he says. “We knew we were going to have to make it work with what we had.”

When they had retrofitted the parlor 15 years ago, getting through the extremely well-built limestone walls of the original barn had been an issue. The first time around, they used jackhammers and ended up with an opening larger than planned. This time, the contractor hired someone who could make clean cuts through the rock, and that went much better.

Kastenschmidt says that although they certainly saved money compared to erecting a new structure, the cost of electrical and plumbing was higher because it had to be retrofitted and upgraded. They also had to accept that in some instances they simply could not place things such as outlets or switches where they wanted them.

“My advice to someone considering a retrofit for robotics is to be patient and know you are going to have to work around obstacles,” Kastenschmidt says. “It’s probably not going to be ideal, but remember: A good manager can make robots, a parlor or even stanchions work.”

There are still about 20 of the original stanchions in part of the barn which they use for herd health in lieu of a palpation rail.

They milked in their double-eight parallel until they started with the robotics, so there was no logical way to use the space where the parlor was for a robot. They ended up placing a robot on each side of the parlor, both of which are connected to the freestall barn.

The cows are not grouped or in pens; they all have access to both milkers. Kastenschmidt says that when they milked in the parlor, there were some cows that preferred one side of the parlor to the other, so even though he was advised to put in two right-hand or two left-hand robotic units, he put in one of each.

“Some cows prefer to use one robot or the other, and some don’t mind using either one,” he says.

One thing many cows did have a problem with at first was being milked from the side instead of being milked from behind like they were used to in the parlor.

The current milking herd consists of 120 cows. They were producing about 95 pounds a day with 2X milking; now with the robotics the cows are averaging 3.1 milkings a day and are consistently averaging 100 pounds a day. “Robots only harvest the milk,” he says. “Management is what makes milk.”

The herd, which consists mostly of Holsteins and a few Jerseys, is averaging 3.7 percent fat and 2.95 percent protein. Somatic cell count ranges from 135,000 to 150,000.

The older freestall barn where the milking herd is housed has sand bedding and natural ventilation. There is a center feedbunk, and the alleys are scraped three times a day with a skid loader.

The Kastenschmidts decided to go with a free-flow system instead of using any type of gate system. “This way is more cow-friendly.

They have more time to eat, and more dry matter intake means more milk production, which leads to higher dry matter intakes, which leads to higher milk production,” he says. “Guided flow systems are for the people, not the cows.”

Although he was willing to listen to the advice of “experts” as they went along with this project, Kastenschmidt says some decisions, such as to not use sort gates, were simply based on his years of observing cow behavior.

“We needed to make some decisions based on what we knew would work for us,” he says.

He added, “There is no one definitive answer on how to do things; every farm has so many variables.”

They constructed a new freestall barn in 2006 for their heifers and dry cows, which allows them to have all their cattle at their farm.

A bit of advice Kastenschmidt has for anyone considering robotics is to start breeding your cows for good teat placement, teat length and milking speed.

They now use their old parlor for singeing udders, dry cow treatments and foot care.

Kastenschmidt started farming with his dad when he graduated from high school in 1989 and went on to purchase the farm in 2008. “I’ve always known that was what I was going to do,” he says. And with the addition of robots, he will be able to continue following his dream into the future.  end mark

See more of the Kastenschmidts' operation in this slideshow.

PHOTO: After retrofitting their barn for robots, Doug and Micki Kastenschmidt are averaging 100 pounds of milk per cow per day on 3.1 milkings, an increase of 5 pounds from milking twice a day in a milking parlor. Photo by Kelli Boylen.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer from Waterville, Iowa