It was November 11, 2012, that milking cows at the Leedle dairy in Lake Geneva underwent a dramatic change. That's the date that four of their eight new Lely Astronaut A-4 robots, located in a new dairy barn, began milking some 250 cows.
That's also the date when the cows and the Leedle family, Tom, Jennifer, son Jason and his wife Lindsay began relearning most everything they had learned over prior years about milking cows.
In January 2013, I visited the Leedle dairy and wrote about how the family, who had been milking in a Double 8 parlor in a much remodeled and added-to dairy complex, changed their milking system.
At the time of my visit, 15 months ago, the Leedles had just two months of experience milking with robots but were very pleased with the facilities and systems.
Many folks have asked me in the intervening time, how are the Leedles doing?
I was also curious, thus my visit a couple days ago.
As I wrote in January 2013, the Leedles summarized their building effort as — in contrast to how many dairy producers who participate in a major building project often comment — "the whole process was a perfect job."
They haven't changed their minds!
As of April 3, there were 465 cows being milked 3.1 times a day and producing an average of 86.5 pounds.
"That's more milk than we were getting in our old facility," Tom and Jason said. "About 200 animals were bred heifers we had purchased in preparation for the expansion."
"The new barn is working better than we expected and was the place we wanted to be during the extreme cold days this winter," Tom said. "The cross ventilation system is working perfect; air is pulled out of the barn attic with the fans and curtains on the same circuit. The curtains went up the day or two of warmer weather we've had this spring."
Jason, who serves as the herdsman, keeps a close watch on the computer that provides individual cow information about milk production and quality; feed intake; activity; health; and reproduction.
"What are the top three results you've seen so far," I asked.
1) Our heat detection is better. We do no chalking or observation; the pedometer measures cow activity.
2) Udder health is far better as the milk conductivity is measured every milking and is very accurate
3) Potentially sick cows are found early by temperature and activity readings. A slow milk letdown is an indicator.
In addition, the Juno robot feed pusher works great, meaning the cows get all the feed put in the manger, Jason added.
Calves fill the new calf barn, which was not yet fully completed at my last visit. Jennifer, who heads the calf care program that includes animals in this new building and several others, explained the DeLaval automatic liquid feeder and how the young calves stand in line to get their turn.
Interestingly, the calves are of many colors and markings. That's because the Leedles have followed a Holstein x Jersey x Swedish Red crossbreeding program for some time.
"We tried different crossbreeding combinations," Tom said. "The result has been good milk production with high protein. We're happy with it."
The farm labor force includes Tom, who manages heifers and cropping (1,000 acres); Jennifer, the calf manager; Jason, the herdsman, and his wife Lindsay; a full-time employee; and two part-timers, a high school student and Jason's sister Kristin.
It was in 2007, when Jason rejoined the family dairy after graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in nutritional sciences, that the family realized the 230 cows were not enough to support two families and that herd expansion was necessary if the dairy was to continue.
However, they wanted to keep their farm as a true family farm without expanding to mega herd size where they would need a large employee force and accompanying intensive labor management program.
The subject of robots entered their thinking, and they began a serious research effort that included a lot of visits to existing robot-milking dairies, reading, talking, asking, listening and learning.
After much thought, they settled on a herd of about 450 cows being milked by eight Lely robots from Argall Milking Systems, in Belleville, in a new 234-by-232 freestall barn to be built by Brickl Brothers, West Salem. The robotic milking stalls would be placed in the center of the barn (a bit of an unusual but good move).
On April 25, 2012, construction began, and in order to achieve the desired herd size, they purchased 200 bred heifers in Idaho.
Milking began on November 11, 2012, with about 300 cows in the milking lineup
The Leedles agreed that their cows adapted to the robot system quickly, with half of the herd settling in within four days and most within a week (except for one cow who just didn't like robots at all).
"We had a lot of help from the Lely and Argall people who actually stayed at our farm for a brief period, living in a small mobile home," Tom said. "They really helped us get things operating properly."
Although the Leedles have not been overwhelmed with visitors, they are happy to provide information to others considering robotic milking.
Last week, they did host two busloads of visitors, one from the east and one from the Midwest, who were a part of the Lely "Visit the Manufacturer" tour. "They were mostly farmers," Tom said. "And, they asked a lot of good questions."
The herd limit will max out at about 480 cows and the Leedles have not done a lot of culling yet because of the large number of bred heifers (the 200 head from Idaho) that have been incorporated into the herd.
Meanwhile, robotic dairying is proceeding at a rapid pace across dairyland with dairy experts predicting rapid growth in all-size herds, even in mega herds seeking expansion.
The labor and management issues are seen as a deterrent to herd expansion by many farmers who, like the Leedles, seek family labor utilization rather than a large immigrant labor force and its management challenges.
As I've written in the past, I feel robots offer a system that can keep many smaller dairy herds in business long term and offer a logical expansion mode for even mega herds.
The Leedles called the building of their robotic milking system "a perfect process" and, nearly a year and a half later, have not changed their minds.
John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at email@example.com.