Farm Horizons, August 2017

Robotic milking:‘It’s not a fad’

By Starrla Cray

At Green Waves Farm in St. Michael, cows don’t wait for a farmer to milk them morning and night.

Instead, the animals step into a special stall anytime they want, where they are milked by a robot.

The Berning family invested in this technology in 2014. Their setup includes a cross-ventilated free-stall barn with eight Lely Astronaut milking robots, as well as robotic calf feeders.

“We can milk up to eight cows at a time,” said Mark, who co-owns the farm with his brother, Paul, and son, David.

The robotic milkers are operable 24/7, except for about 25 minutes twice a day for washing.

“We’re currently milking 375 cows, and we’ll be pushing 480 by the end of the year,” Mark said during a tour of his farm.

Several people had an opportunity to see Green Waves Farm in action June 30, as the site of a University of Minnesota Extension dairy field day.

The fourth-generation farm currently includes Paul and his wife, Stacy; Mark and his wife, Julie; and David and his wife, Sara.

When asked what it’s like to be married to a dairy farmer, Sara said “it’s really about being flexible.” She explained that plans may change at the last minute, and the family works around the demands of the farm.

Although the robotic milkers have eliminated the need to start milking in the parlor at 4 a.m., the Berning family continues to work the same hours with the expanding herd. The farm also has six part-time employees (mostly high school students) who help out with afternoon chores a few hours per week.

Investing in the future

The decision to expand and add more technology to the farm was made with careful consideration of costs, benefits, and risks. The family also toured several operations to determine what might be feasible for them.

“It’s no different than any other business,” Mark said. “We have a lot of things on a wish list. Some of those things materialize, some don’t, and some take time.”

Planning and strategizing are key, but discussion doesn’t have to be at a formal business meeting.

“It might be [while we’re] walking from one building to the other, through the day,” Mark said. “It’s a lot of communication.”

So far, the Berning family has been pleased with their investment decisions. Previously, milking took place each morning and evening. Now, with the robots milking throughout the day, cows are milked an average of 2.8 times per day.

Milk production continues to increase as well – from about 80 pounds per cow each day in 2016, to an average of 88 pounds in 2017.

Robotic milking ‘isn’t for everybody’

The Green Waves Farm tour was sponsored by AgStar, Federated Coop, Munson Lakes Nutrition, and Leedstone.

“Robotic milking isn’t for everybody,” Jake Moline, a representative of Leedstone, said during the field day. “It’s for people who are really good with detail.”

According to a 2016 article from Online Sciences, a few disadvantages of robotic milking may include a higher initial cost, less farmer contact with the animals, increased complexity, and difficulty training cows to use the robotic system.

Moline said his company (which offers veterinary medicine) works with 44 families who have purchased robotic milking equipment.

“Robotic milking is not a fad,” he said. “It’s not going away.”

Before investing in robotic milkers, Munson Lake Nutrition dairy production consultant Jeff Thorpe recommends asking, “Does someone on the farm love the cows?”

A love for the herd is important, he explained, because although the milkers reduce labor, they are not “automatic,” and a great deal of care is still needed.

The robotic system helps keep track of how a cow is doing, and if something changes – such as a drop in rumination or reduced milk quality – the Bernings are immediately alerted to check it out.

For the calves, too

Robotic calf feeders help keep an eye on the younger animals at Green Waves Farm. Computer monitoring shows how much each calf is drinking and eating, giving an early indication of potential illness.

“The bounce-back time is so much shorter, it’s unbelievable,” Mark said, explaining that illnesses are often caught sooner than before, and can be treated quickly.

Mark’s son, David, said he has learned a lot about troubleshooting the past few years. Although he has a college degree in agriculture, he came back to the farm with an open mind, ready to learn.

As is the case for many people in agriculture, farming is more than a career for David – it’s a way of life.

“I could probably get paid more doing something else, but at the end of the day, it’s not really work if you love what you’re doing,” he said.

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