"What's the future of dairy robotics and automatic milking in the U.S.?
"I can't say for sure ... but, this initial effort will influence U.S. dairying mightily - one way or another." (That is the last paragraph in my column of Sept. 28, 2000, that told about the first robotic milkers in the U.S. installed at Knigge Farms in Omro a month earlier.)
It's now 12 years later and I feel more secure in predicting the future of dairy robotics and its impact on U.S. dairying.
Over the years since Pete Knigge made the decision to install two Holland-made Lely robots in his dairy herd, a lot has happened on the robotic milking scene.
Wisconsin is now the home of some two dozen (maybe more) dairy farms using robots.
From the one dairy company selling robots (Lely), there are now two (Lely and DeLaval) with another (GEA) about to enter the competition and BouMatic getting ready to enter the market.
Knigge Farms still use two robots that were updated to the latest model last summer.
Robotic milking has not created a mad rush among dairy producers to put them in over the 12 years, rather, it's been a sort of slow and steady movement that is beginning to pick up speed.
Dairy farmers have been doing their research - lots of it - visiting farms currently using them, talking with ag engineers and farm lenders and watching the robotic scene evolve .
Tom and Jennifer Leedle, Lake Geneva, are the latest Wisconsin dairy producers to go to robotic milking, when they along with son Jason, began milking some 300 cows with their eight Lely robots on Nov. 11.
The Leedles see the event as the culmination of a long and much thought-about plan to keep their operation as a family farm without expanding to a larger dairy herd size where they would need a bigger employee force.
Tom and his brother William had been running the farm for some time and their father George Leedle had moved into selling silage handling equipment and then into his own DeLaval dealership (George A. Leedle Sales & Service at Lake Geneva).
Tom and Jennifer took over management of the family farm in 1992 with William's departure. At the time there were 180 cows being milked in a Double 8 parlor. (Note - the first parlor on the farm was installed in 1967.)
The dairy grew over the years as the barn was remodeled, a new in-barn parlor was added and a freestall barn built and the herd grew in numbers.
In 2002 their son Jason enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He couldn't wait to get off the farm and away from milking," his mother says.
In December 2007, Jason graduated from the UW-Madison with a degree in nutritional sciences, "the human kind," he says.
He also graduated with a change of heart and mind and wanted very much to return to the farm.
It didn't take long for the family to take a hard look at their dairy farming operation and they didn't like all that they saw.
"We were milking out of three barns that were tied together," Tom says. "The ventilation was bad and we were spending too much time in the parlor."
They also realized that the 230 cows were not enough to support two families.
The Leedles were milking twice a day and couldn't go to three times a day without more help and the idea of going with a major herd expansion that would mean a larger labor force with its people management challenges wasn't appealing.
About three years ago the family began seriously thinking about the future and the subject of robotic milking entered their planning.
They embarked on a serious research effort that included travel to existing dairies using robots, reading, talking, listening, asking and learning.
After looking at both DeLaval and Lely robotic milking equipment, they settled on the Lely system and Argall Milking Systems, the Lely dealer at Belleville.
With a 450-cow herd in mind, they needed a new freestall barn and contracted with Brickl Brothers, Inc. at West Salem as their builder.
They began working on financial arrangements with Matt Towns, vice president of agricultural lending at the DMB Community Bank in DeForest.
The final plan included eight Lely A4 robots placed in the center of a 234x232-foot cross-ventilated freestyle barn with Wieser Concrete slatted floors.
Tom Leedle said it took a while to get the needed permits and construction began on April 25, 2012.
"The construction went perfect," Tom says. "Brickl Brothers met with the various contractors and laid out a week by week building plan and on Nov. 11 the first milking was conducted in the new facility.
"We had a sort of family reunion and our children came home to help get the cows into the new system," Jennifer says. "We began with four robots and the first day was a lot of physical 'pushing', the second day was better and the third day saw things going well. We had a lot of help from Argall and Lely to get going."
As part of adding cows to the herd, the Leedles bought 200 bred heifers from Idaho that are gradually coming into the milking lineup that now stands at 330 cows milking on the way to 450 head.
The Leedles - as planned - are using family help. Tom and Jennifer, son Jason and his wife Lindsay (and their 20 month old son Nolan), Tom's sister Laurie McCarthy, who lives nearby, works on a part-time basis, as does a high school student.
Justin Segner, Monroe, who works for Argall Milking Systems, formerly worked with Lely as a technician and instructor was a great help, the Leedles say.
He is now installing the Lely "Juno" robot feed pusher throughout the freestall barn that will be working by the weekend.
Unlike many construction projects one hears about, the Leedles call the whole process a "perfect job" as the contractors worked together to carry out the plans made over the several years.
Matt Towns, a UW-Plattevillle graduate who was raised on a Rock County dairy farm, said the Leedle family expanded for all the right reasons, at the right time.
"They spent years planning and were so well prepared for the new facility and did things right," he says.
Jason is the herdsman and stays close to the computer that relays all the data for each cow - from production figures (currently at 78 pound per cow average) to cow activity to feed information.
If the system has difficulty, it automatically calls Tom, Jason and then Argall.
What about the feed supply as a result of the summer's drought?"
"We're okay," Tom says. "We have 900 acres of cropland, that includes 300 acres of irrigated corn and alfalfa and we used a traveling irrigation gun to irrigate more acres."
There are some two dozen or so using robotic systems in Wisconsin, with more being built.
As I wrote 12 years ago, "robots will have a big effect on dairying" and the time is here.
My guess is that there will a boom in robotics for those dairy families seeking to use family labor with sons and daughters entering the business.
Perhaps 300-500 cows - the size that has often been a "financial black hole," too big for a family, too small to hire a lot of help.
The Leedle family is doing it with a lot of planning and change, and it is working.
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 e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.