“It allows the cow to be a cow. They can lie when they want and eat when they want. They are not as stressed,” says Darin Strauss, an owner of the dairy located in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin.
Labor was the initial concern that pushed the four families operating the dairy’s two locations to install milking robots at its 900-cow Meadows facility.
“We had to think about who or what will be milking cows moving forward,” Darin says.
“And at what cost,” his brother, Dean, adds, noting there is more demand for higher wages, overtime pay and benefits for farm employees.
“We had to think big picture,” Dean says. “Did we have to do it today? No, but we will be better off when the economy does turn.”
With the robots, the farm has seen a reduction of labor hours by 40 percent, but it took them longer than they had originally expected to get there.
“It took longer than a major league baseball season,” Dean says of the construction phase.
Thirteen robots were retrofitted into the dairy’s existing freestalls. They started digging on April 3, 2017, opening day for their revered team, the Milwaukee Brewers.
In July, they fired up the first three robots. Five more followed in September and the last five in November, five days after the World Series ended sans the Brewers, who finished in October, one game shy of the Colorado Rockies for the second wild card spot that year.
Even with all robots up and running, it wasn’t until February when they could start cutting back on labor needs.
“It takes time,” Dean says. “Every cow that calves, you have to train.”
Once the mature cows were trained to the automated milking system, they now only have to teach the heifers that calve in.
After installation was complete, they also had to learn a new way to manage cows.
“The whole system changed,” Darin says. “Take everything you know about managing cows, and it is gone in three days. You almost forget you know how to take care of cows. There was so much comfort in the parlor, and you don’t have that comfort anymore.”
Dean adds, “We took for granted the 20 years we had in the parlor to create protocols.”
With an entirely new milking system, they needed to modify or create new ways to manage footbaths, hoof trimming, vaccinating cows, etc.
Both the cows and the people needed to learn the new expectations on the farm.
“It was a shift to stay out of the pen and keep the barns quiet,” Darin says.
“Now it is the coolest thing to see at night,” he adds. “You see a small light glow above each robot, and that’s all that’s on.”
They installed the cow locator function with their automated system to avoid stirring up more cows than necessary when they enter the pen. Without sort pens off the robots, the locator is used to find fetch cows, breeding cows, sick cows and at herd check.
“It went down for a week, and everyone missed it,” Darin says. “It took five minutes to find a cow instead of one.”
The locator app is installed on two herd phones kept at the farm and held by the employees on duty. These phones are also top on the list for the robots to call when attention is needed.
With a year of experience and 13 robots to tend to, they are getting better and better at troubleshooting the alert calls.
“We see things more often than a producer that has two or three robots,” Darin says.
With the frequency of calvings, they can justify having employees on the farm 24 hours a day, which helps with maintaining robot performance and handling late-night calls.
By automating the milking process, more employees are able to do more than attach a machine.
“We are able to let our employees advance more into entry-level herdsmanship and troubleshooting certain problems,” Darin says.
As employees take on more higher-level work, it helps to justify the additional wages needed to stay competitive in today’s labor market.
It has also allowed Darin to advance in his own role of managing the herd and employees, as some of his previous tasks are now accomplished by others.
Dean admits his role as business manager hasn’t changed much at all with the robots, but as he calculates performance from 2018 compared to years prior, he is uncovering some notable herd and financial improvements.
“Our breedings are better,” he says. “Our annual preg rate was at 35 percent when normally it was 29 to 30 percent.”
The Strausses attribute this to better heat detection from the activity system that came with the robots, as well as the cows having freedom in their daily schedule and reduced stress.
With this performance, they are considering cutting back some of the synchronization protocols they’ve been using.
They also are noticing better feet and legs on the animals, and hoof trimming is now 35 percent less than before.
Mastitis treatments are down 50 percent, which saves a lot in medical costs.
“In general, if you reduce stress, you are a little more healthy,” Darin says. “When a cow’s immune system is strong, they can fight infection better.”
Milk quality, as measured by somatic cell count, has stayed the same at 120,000 to 124,000. Dean says they never really decreased in milk production through the transition and are now up about 2 to 3 pounds of milk per cow per day.
One problem they started to see was: Two-year-olds weren’t peaking well in their lactation. They started calling and talking with others in robotic systems and heard that if you milk them four times for the first four days of their lactation, it can help.
They were able to implement this using a separate pen close to the robot.
“The cows are peaking higher now,” Dean reports.
Something else they noticed after installing the robots was: The manure pit wasn’t as full as it usually would be.
Thinking parlors probably use a lot more water, they went to their second milking facility that continues to milk its 1,100 cows with a double-12 parlor to test the theory.
“We went to the parlor facility and filled a 7-gallon bucket in 10 seconds with the fire hose used to wash down the parlor,” Darin says.
Overall, the dairy now has 25 to 30 percent less water in its manure storage. Dean figures it is a savings of more than $40 per cow.
Month after month, they built upon their experience and have now reached a better comfort level in managing cows in an automated system.
“We have a baseline,” Dean says. “Now we are asking ‘Where can we go with this?’”
After only having take-offs for technology in the old parlor, this new system is a “technical overload,” he says. They continue to figure out what key items they need to watch daily and how they can make an impact on performance.
They are constantly running scenarios similar to mathematical story problems of their youth. For instance, Dean says, “If you reduce box time by 20 seconds per cow, how many more milkings can you get per day?”
Just like when they were thinking of installing robots, Darin says they are always gathering information from a lot of different sources.
“If we have a problem, we pick up the phone and call someone with more experience,” he says.
Being willing to listen to someone is a quality that has helped the Strausses through this transition.
At the advice of their dealer, they positioned the robots in the center of their largest freestall barn instead of at the ends. It is a popular layout for new builds but less attractive for retrofits.
“It made construction tougher, as they had to cut out manure lines and drain lines, but now we think it was the right thing to do,” Dean says. “There is less running to check on equipment and, over 20 years’ time, that walking will add up.”
In other instances, they had to be willing to push for what they want. They knew they could save $100 per ton if they fed a grain mix instead of pellets at the robot. It took a change in the feed dispenser and learning to get the right texture of the grain mix, but it eventually worked.
“You’ve got to be open to change,” Dean says.
While a lot has changed at Majestic Crossing Dairy over the past two years, and it took longer than expected to find a management style that fit again, the farm is seeing results that will be beneficial long term.
Reduced labor needs, less water demand and improved animal welfare not only address looming concerns within the industry, they are also making a positive impact on this dairy’s bottom line.
PHOTO: After having cow management turned upside down with the installation of 13 milking robots just over a year ago, Dean and Darin Strauss are seeing positive changes in labor roles and farm expenses. Photo by Karen Lee.
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