If robotic milking systems need an ambassador, Dan Diederich of De Pere in Brown County is a prime candidate.
With four robots in place for milking a herd of 300 cows, Diederich described himself as a "passionate user" of the system during a presentation at the technology-oriented session of the 2013 Progressive Operators series at Lakeshore Technical College.
Diederich told attendees that, when operated by his parents Raymond and Debra, the farm had a herringbone milk parlor, began using the DairyComp software management program by 1987, and was an early user of pasture mats in stalls.
When robot milkers were introduced from Europe (mainly The Netherlands), the Diederichs were immediately interested in them.
In 2002, Diederich and Pete Knigge of Omro, who made the first installation of a robotic milking system in Wisconsin, attended a North American world conference on robot milkers. This eventually led Diederich to buy four units for about $800,000 as part of a renovation project that raised the farm debt to more than $10,000 per cow.
At the moment, the milking herd is averaging 80 pounds per day on an average of 2.3-2.4 daily trips through the system per cow. The average time per milking is about eight minutes for a use of the system for about 21 hours per day. The opening day for Diederich's robotic system was Feb. 22, 2012.
Built-in automated controls limit how often a cow can navigate the system, Diederich pointed out. This entitles some early lactation cows with up to three to four milkings per 24 hours while restricting others to no more than twice a day.
The computer-run and automated cow identification system permits a cow to enter every four hours if she is likely to have at least 17 pounds of milk and at between 7 and 10 hours for an expected milk production of 19, 21, or 24 pounds.
If they meet those criteria, the cows will be allowed through a sorting gate and into a small holding area if there are no more than three other cows already waiting to enter the robot milking unit.
Problems do crop up in the system but there were only six alarms in the previous seven days that needed attention, Diederich reported. One potential problem is an unusually long down period, which might be caused by a cow blocking the flow lane but this has been addressed in part by having a double entry lane, he indicated.
Diederich is very pleased with the 1.8-1 ratio of milk production to dry matter feed intake. He pointed out that an emphasis on feeding late in the day, combined with long-day lighting, serves to keep the cows active during the night, thereby making more efficient use of the robot units.
One requirement with the system is that the teat placement must be programmed the first time a cow is milked in the robot. A special problem exists with heifers having udder edema at the time of the first milking but an alternate procedure is available to set the teat cups so they can be attached, Diederich noted.
If Diederich could change one thing in the current setup of the system, he would opt away from the feeding first arrangement to milking first instead. He restricts the amount of feed that is provided in the milking station to cows as they are being milked.
Diederich chose a DeLaval robot system in part because a dealership providing service is only 7 minutes away. The purchase agreement includes a warranty on replacement of major parts. His monthly direct costs are about $200 for new inflations and chemicals for cleaning the system.
Under his current operation, Diederich calculates that he is generating about $10,000 in savings per year beyond the payments being made on the robots.
He also hopes, in effect, to shave three years off the 10-year operating note for the project by achieving payback on the robots in only seven years.
Asked about the choice of a brushing or cup washing of udders before milking, Diederich said the brushing would clean more teats while the cup washing does a better job of washing but will miss some teats.
Another choice with multiple milking units is whether to have one or two arms that handle the operations.
Diederich explained that the one-arm system provided by GEA (the merged Surge and Westfalia companies) can handle more cows per arm but that the per arm efficiency - one for each unit or one for two robot milking stations - is also affected by how much milk the cows are producing per visit.
As a result of the installation of the robots, Diederich laid off three of his four previous employees. The herd of 300 cows is handled by three workers, including a brother who is in charge of the Total Mixed Ration feeding.
Diederich is planning for an expansion in about three years.
Regarding the potential of single robotic unit, he points to a farm at Dorchester where 6,840 pounds of milk are generated in 24 hours - a volume reputed to be the world record as the herd's cows are producing an average of 105 pounds of milk per day.
Lest anyone be misled, Diederich warns that a robotic milking system is not a cure for poor management in other aspects of a dairy enterprise.
He welcomes scheduled tours and can be reached by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 920-371-8414. With his wife Sarah, he also maintains a Facebook presence at facebook.com/DiederichFarm.