Ongoing struggles with labor costs and availability are at the forefront of increased discussions regarding automation in many industries, and dairy is no exception. Alltech’s annual Dairy School took the discussion beyond current labor pains to address technology’s impact on future dairy management.

Natzke dave
Editor / Progressive Dairy
Lee karen
Managing Editor / Progressive Dairy

Held Nov. 30 – Dec. 1, the event featured tours of three farms utilizing automation and technology, followed by a day of formal presentations at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. With more than 230 attendees, including dairy farmers, nutritionists, veterinarians and other technical experts, topics ranged from precision feeding, calf management and the implementation of new milking systems to the financial implications facing dairy producers.

Farm tours

Starting the two-day event, two coach buses traveled through northeastern Wisconsin to find various forms of technology being implemented on dairy farms.

The first stop was Green Valley Dairy in Krakow, Wisconsin. This farm featured an automated milking facility with 12 robots built in addition to the farm’s conventional parlor system. Two years ago, the farm converted to capturing and shipping renewable natural gas from its anaerobic digester and reuses the dried solids for bedding.

At Hoffman’s Happy Holsteins in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, the tour group saw one of only several automated rotary parlors in the country in operation. Cows are brought to the parlor where the milking unit self-attaches, cleans, dries, stimulates, milks and post-dips on its own. The parlor will stop on its own to allow a slow milker to finish and then start rotating again. With this technology, the farm has only one employee monitoring the milking process.


The final tour stop at Wichman Farms in Seymour, Wisconsin, showcased interacting automation from the milking barn to the calf facility. The Wichman family converted to automated milking in 2013 when they built a new facility with four robots. Six years later, they built a new group calf barn, 200 feet from the automated milking barn. Using a small pasteurizer in the milking barn, they collect waste milk from the cows and pasteurize it before piping it underground to the calf facility where it is stored and fed out through two automated calf feeders.

Weiland: Impact of technology

In kicking off the formal program, Dan Weiland, Alltech’s U.S. dairy business manager, said that in addition to genetics, technology “will take dairy to the next level” by 2050. In addition to robotic milking, feeding technology will lead to more consistent diets and automated cooling systems will enhance cow comfort while minimizing water usage. Those and other technology, such as systems that monitor a cow’s breath for methane emissions, will have a far-reaching impact on future dairy managers, Weiland said. One key to success will be working through all the data generated and using it to manage cows individually.

DeVries: Feeding technology

While addressing the need for additional precision in dairy management, Trevor DeVries, professor and dairy cattle behavior and welfare research chair at the University of Guelphfocused specifically on the use of feeding technology. While dairy feeding is still generally managed at the group level, robotic milking combined with other technology will provide more opportunity to manage cows at the individual level, he said.

When it comes to managing cows, feeding requires both accuracy and precision, DeVries said. Accuracy means hitting the feeding target, matching the delivered ration to the formulation, while precision means hitting the same spot on the target every day to meet the cow’s consistency needs.

“We want consistency in the way that we house, manage and milk cows,” DeVries said. At the same time, striving for more consistency in feed ingredients, mixing, delivery and pushing up feed leads to more efficient and consistent digestion, cow health and productivity.

“The reality is: For most farms, the process of mixing and delivering feed is something that is controlled by humans,” he said. “The challenge we have with any human-operated task is the risk of variation, both within a person as well as between persons.”

DeVries expects dairy labor challenges will continue to impact dairy, creating bottlenecks and inconsistency, and fuel the need for automation and technology adoption.

“Automated technologies, particularly in feeding, are allowing us to maintain greater accuracy and precision in diet preparation and delivery,” he concluded.

Costa: Starting early

In “Setting Up the Next Generation: Raising Calves to Go Above and Beyond,” Joao Costa, dairy instructor and researcher at the University of Kentucky, summarized studies on calves, including nutrition, housing and behavior.

Automation and technology in calf-raising is providing the tools to collect data that is changing the management relationship with calves, Costa said. Those changes can improve calf nutrition, socialization, diseases and calf health.

“If we want to raise those calves, we need to do it right from the beginning, especially with nutrition,” Costa said. Automated feeding systems can help deliver milk and feed to calves when they want it, and using activity monitors in calves provides early detection of the onset of disease, well before clinical signs appear.

Costa said cows of the future will have to be adaptable, able to thrive in a complex environment. He said individual housing of calves leads to later social ranking, increased aggression and increased fear response. He said socialization between and among calves at an early age improves social facilitation and learning as they age, with a big impact on their future productivity. Additionally, calves that "learn" technology early in life may be better suited for robotic milkers and other technology as cows.

“We need to proactively plan what we expect the calves to do and change automated management to do what we want to do,” Costa said.

Rodenburg: An automation mindset

Jack Rodenburg of DairyLogix Consulting in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada, shared insights and numbers he’s collected while working with dairy farmers adopting automation and technology over the past two decades. He reviewed experiences with automated systems covering milking, feeding, bedding, manure handling and calf management.

When it comes to adopting automation, Rodenburg said embracing technology frequently requires a change in mindset.

“A lot of older dairy farmers tell me they’re too old and not making changes while waiting for the kids to take over,” he said. “I would really like to encourage you to embrace the idea of staying relevant and challenging yourself with new ideas and new approaches. It also will teach your children the right things and give them the right example.”

Rodenburg described variations in performance and challenges among automated milking systems, urging producers to match those attributes with personal farm goals and herd size.

“Be aware and understand those differences and pick the things that matter to you and write the protocols for the things you then have to adapt to,” he said. “But I think as robots get better and cheaper, and labor gets harder to find and is more expensive, it's really time to revisit that, and I think today robotic milking fits everywhere.”

However, he urged producers to look at the expected life of their current milking systems.

“The time to invest in new technology is when the old technology is worn out. It can't replace the parlor you bought five years ago but haven't paid for yet,” he said. “So when I said I think a robot is in everyone's future, it might be 20 years from now when your parlor is at the point where [it’s time to be replaced].”

In terms of the newness of technology and companies developing new products, he advised producers to avoid being guinea pigs. “It's nice to be leading edge, but you need to avoid the bleeding edge,” Rodenburg said.

Monger: Evaluating financials

Cassie Monger of Compeer Financial discussed adoption of dairy automation, especially robotics, from a financial perspective. 

Raised on a dairy near St. Cloud, Minnesota, Monger shared experiences as both a producer and a lender. She recalled a time about seven years ago when her family farm was faced with challenges in finding adequate labor and considering a move toward automated milking. Initially, they encountered a lender with little knowledge of the technology.

“We're now working with advisers on our farm where we need them to challenge us to make sure we're geared up for success,” she said. “It's truly about what we know, who we know and what they know so they can really bring value back to us.”

Considering technology adoption first requires assessing where the dairy currently is in terms of management capabilities, the condition of facilities and production metrics, and gauging where the dairy is compared to others. That helps determine whether the dairy can make improvements without significant investments.

It’s also important to know the dairy’s equity position to determine whether it’s in the position to borrow money to invest in technology – along with related items such as purchasing additional cows, expanding or improving facilities, or a manure-handling system.

Frequently, she noted, producers look at the capital investment but forget to include operating costs – including repairs and maintenance, supplies and energy costs – when comparing automation systems.

“Robotics is an area where we tend to see the most variances when it comes to operating expenses and how it impacts income,” Monger said. “If you're only looking at the capital costs, you're going to come up with an incomplete analysis. There are a lot of other factors that go into comparing these systems.”

Monger warned that automation may redefine and raise the caliber of labor needs on the dairy, but not eliminate it. It will also require changes in cow management.

“We know these new technologies and systems improve our efficiencies, and they're giving us more data to manage our cows better, to manage our dairies better, through more targeted feeding and a focus on improving overall cow health, leading to increased productivity,” she said. “At the end of the day, our main goal is really managing these tools so we can be the most effective.”