Cows on the Lepple farm at Beaver Dam casually did their own thing while hundreds of visitors watched them Wednesday (April 4). Milking time is all day long on this farm with help from a couple of robots. Photo By Gloria Hafemeister
Robotic milkers, feed pusher showcased
Robots are used in an increasingly wide variety of tasks such as vacuuming floors, mowing lawns, cleaning drains, building cars, and in warfare.
They also perform tasks that are too dangerous to be performed by humans such as exploring outer space or, in combat, for checking for roadside bombs.
Robots have been around for a long time. Even on the farm, robots have milked cows in European countries for decades. They made an appearance in some areas, including in Wisconsin in the late 1990s but never really gained popularity.
Now there is a new surge of interest — even excitement — in agricultural communities about the newer robotic technology that is offering a ray of hope to farm families who would like to utilize only family labor but don’t want to kneel under cows every morning and every night for the rest of their working lives.
Today’s robots seem surprisingly simple despite the vast technology behind them.
Joel and Jean Lepple and their sons Brent and Craig have been using the Lely Astronaut A-3 Next robotic milking system since October on their Beaver Dam farm.
They also use a robotic Lely Juno feed pusher to push feed in front of the cows several times daily and Lely cattle brushes that allow cows to groom themselves any time of the day or night.
The family is the second Dodge County farmers to adopt the new technology but with a local dealer and equipment service business located right at Juneau, interest is great for future installations on area farms.
READY FOR MODERNIZATION
The Lepples were at a stage of their business where they were considering what direction to go in updating their farm. They had been milking 75 cows in a stall barn and after starting with the robots they went to 85 cows.
They continue to build up the numbers in their herd and are currently milking 112 cows with a goal of reaching 120.
Each robot in the system will handle up to 60 cows.
Their modernization project included the construction of a new freestall barn and milking center to house the robotic system.
Fox Cities Builders assisted with planning the 71’ by 240’ barn to meet the needs of the robotic system. The barn was designed for possible future expansion.
FEED SYSTEM CHANGED
Along with the change to the new housing and milking system the Lepples also switched to a Total Mixed Ration. Their nutritionist, Matt Holmen, has access to the computer records generated by the robotic milking system in order to design the herd’s ration.
A part of the ration is the typical 50:50 haylage:corn silage diet with a pound of grass hay and 2.5 pounds alfalfa hay.
When cows go into the robot they receive a custom pellet that includes protein, vitamins and minerals according to the individual needs of the cow that is currently being milked.
He explains, “Ninety percent of the diet needs are meet through the TMR and the rest is from the custom pellet.”
When a cow enters the robot she gets her pellet grain automatically from the feeder; the amount depends on her milk production and how many times a day she milks.
When a cow enters the milking stall the computer also determines whether to begin milking or reject her. She’s rejected if she has already been milked recently.
The milking procedure begins with the unit orienting itself to the udder by using the cow’s weight distribution. Cows stand on a scale at milking and her weight is part of the daily data.
Two counter-rotating brushes pop up and gently clean each teat. Then four small blasts of air dry the water from each teat.
The teat cups then head unerringly to their respective quarters, one at a time, with little red laser beams sensing the way. The cow lets down her milk, which is weighed and analyzed for conductivity, a good indicator of milk quality that can pick up most mastitis.
Poor quality milk can be directed to milk buckets that are part of the milking system near the robot instead of going by pipeline to the bulk tank.
Managing each cow’s movement and milking, the robot’s software provides a wealth of information. This allows a lot of individual management of cows.
Cows at peak milk may get milked as many as six times a day but more commonly four times. Others that are closer to dry-off time (the end of their lactation) will likely only go through twice a day.
The Lepple’s herd is currently averaging 3.5 milkings a day.
Because the system is in operation 24 hours a day (with 20 minute clean-up periods a couple times a day) cows can come into the stall for milking any time they want. This makes cows more content because they are always comfortable and don’t have to wait for their turn to be milked.
Designers of the system say the result is improved udder health, consistency in how cows are prepped and milked, and no over-milking.
Getting cows adapted to the system is a little like training cows to use a milking parlor. Lepples say the robotic system takes a little longer, though, because it operates 24-hours a day. Training required assistance in the barn around the clock for a period of time until the cows adapted.
Typically, a small percentage of the cows adapt quickly within a couple of days. It takes about 75 percent of them about three weeks to fully adapt.
A small percentage of the herd will take as long as 3 months to get used to it and there may be a few cows who never adapt and will likely be culled.
The robot has not necessarily resulted in less work for the family. They still need to spend time managing the system and doing routine cow-care procedures. It has allowed them more flexibility, however.
While this technology is quite new to this area, there are currently 13,000 Lely robots like the Lepple’s operating today. Most of the installations are on farms with 120-240 cows.
Some larger farms, however, are beginning to look at the system to replace milking parlors. The largest farm using robotic technology farm is in Pennsylvania and has 19 robots at work milking.
While robotic technology is not cheap, the first robot is more expensive because of the need for milking center equipment to go along with it.
One of these areas is a tank to hold milk while the milk hauler is emptying the bulk tank and performing routine clean-up procedures. Milk is held in that tank so the robots do not need to shut down during that procedure.
That tank, the air compressor that runs the system, the plate coolers that pre-cool the milk, the dual water softeners and water heaters on the Lepple farm are all sized so they would not need replacement if they added more robots in the future.
The Lepple’s project also included many energy saving systems including a second use tank that recycles water for several uses before it eventually leaves the barn. They also utilize equipment to use heat from the refrigeration unit to pre-heat water. They have an in-floor heating system in the utility room and milk house and in the area where the cows come to be milked to prevent cows from falling on icy pavement.
Part of what has sparked the new interest in robots in Wisconsin is that Lely established a production plant in Iowa in 2004 and introduced two new and improved models in the years following.
That has prompted interest by companies like Central Ag Supply at Juneau who service the equipment for the Lepple family to become dealers.