A combination of the curious and those with a genuine interest in robotic milkers drew a crowd of 70 to the Diederich dairy farm for a barn meeting, sponsored by the Outagamie County Quality Milk Council and the county's Extension Service office.
The four DeLaval robotic milking units that have been operating since early 2012 were the main attraction. Dan Diederich provided attendees with dozens of numbers, doses of thoughts on management philosophy, and a handful of hints for working with the robot milkers.
Diederich confided that a decision made more than decade ago to pursue the installation of milking robots, along with the accompanying ability to expand the size of the dairy herd, is what convinced him to stay on the farm rather than to take up some other career after he finished college. He owns the farm in conjunction with his parents, Ray and Debra, and his wife Sarah, who also serves as the herd's veterinarian.
With the help of one full-time employee and Diederich's brother, who handles a late night feeding, the family manages a milking of about 250 head and youngstock with the equivalent of about 4.5 full-time positions.
In addition, crops are grown on and harvested from nearly 400 owned and rented acres and crops are purchased directly from other fields on the western outskirts of De Pere in Brown County less than two miles from the border with Outagamie County.
Diederich told the visitors that his father has always had "a progressive" approach in operating the farm. This included use of the DairyCOMP 305 computer records program since 1987 and the relatively early construction of a free-stall barn and the placement of pasture mats in the stalls, he noted.
What was most significant for Dan Diederich, however, was his father's expressed interest in robotic milking by 2001 and his attendance at the first North American conference on milking robots in 2002. It took another 10 years for the four robots to be installed at the farm but Diederich is convinced it was worth the wait.
It was somewhat of a challenge to obtain the $800,000 in financing to purchase the set of four robots and related support system, Diederich acknowledged. But he was able to obtain 12- and 15-year notes from Fidelity National Bank in Appleton and expects a full return on the investment in 7.5 years.
One way to evaluate the robotic milking system is how he was able to reduce his employment payroll by four full-time positions once the robots were in place, Diederich indicated.
In another sphere, Diederich noted how the repetitive chore of milking has been eliminated for family members or employees. Instead, he monitors the numerous computer-generated documents and charts and reacts accordingly, including the scheduling of artificial inseminations and identification of health problems with cows.
There has also been a significant cutback in the number of injuries in the herd, Diederich observed. He believes that some of the injuries that were incurred were due to failures by former employees to follow recommended protocols.
To a question, Diederich acknowledged a recent annual culling rate of about 40 percent. But he attributed a portion of this percentage to the aging of a group of cows that were purchased as two-year-olds to carry out a herd expansion linked to the acquisition of the robots. "Our herd is getting younger," he said.
Based on an average of seven minutes per cow, each of the four robots can handle up to about 170 individual milkings per day. The highest number of cows going through a single robot at the Diederich farm within 24 hours has been 68.
As of early November, there were 240 cows in the milking herd, down from an earlier high of 265, Diederich pointed out. The cows are averaging about 80 pounds of milk per day and each is being milked an average of 2.6 times per day, he noted.
The somatic cell count of the milk that is sold to the nearby BelGioioso Cheese has been running at 250,000-300,000 cells per milliter. Diederich attributed this somewhat above average number to the presence of some staph and mycoplasma mastitis in the herd.
With the aid of the integrated computer system, which includes identification tags on each of the cows, Diederich has specific standards on when a cow will be allowed to enter a robot for milking.
Because nearly six pounds of grain is fed per cow per day in the robot, they have an extra motivation to head to the robot rather than to be milked as such, he stated. "Cows don't care about milking."
Permission to be milked is granted to early lactation cows as often as every four hours or if they are projected to have at least 17 pounds of milk at the time. Milk volumes per quarter at each milking are recorded by the robots as part of the computer-driven oversight.
For mid-lactation cows, the standards are a milking as frequently as every seven hours with at least 19 pounds of milk while for the late-lactation cows the numbers are 10 hours and 21-24 pounds of milk. Diederich noted that a cow producing 180 pounds of milk per day could be milked five times every 24 hours.
Each cow's status is examined as she approaches a sorting gate that leads to the robot. She is let through if the standards are met. Another control that might come into play is how many cows are already in the small holding area outside the robot.
The robotic quality control system is equipped to identify any milk that would not meet basic quality standards and divert it either to a drain or a separate storage tank for feeding to calves. With any cow treated with antibiotics, Diederich emphasized that it is crucial to input that fact to the computer memory before the next milking so the milk can be diverted.
Asked if there are certain times within the day when cows chose to be milked, Diederich said there definitely are. He said the traffic is lighter during the middle of the night, around 7:30 a.m., and again during the noon hour while the middle of the afternoon tends to be busy.
There is little or no difference on when cows choose be milked depending on whether the temperatures are very high or low, Diederich said. He noted that it is necessary to keep the temperature in barn above freezing because the robots depend heavily on water for their operating routine.
The late night feeding is designed to stimulate the activity of cows and balance the flow to the robots, Diederich explained. He noted that the feed is pushed up three times per day and cows eat up to 12 times per day.
Supplemental long-day lighting keeps the inside of the wide free-stall barn bright for 16 continuous hours every day. The cost of electric power to run the robots and supporting information systems is 28 cents per cow per day.
Diedrich's goal is to achieve an average of 30 pounds of milk per cow for each milking turn that she takes in a robot. At 170 individual milkings per day, that would put the day's total for each robot at just over 5,000 pounds of milk.
It was noted that the highest recorded volume of milk production during a 24-hour period in one robot was just over 6,900 pounds on a farm near Dorchester. DeLaval company literature mentions a high of 7,260 pounds with its Voluntary Milking System, which is described as "the ultimate milking robot."
Addressing that point, DeLaval's Midwest region field representative Jeff Hahn said a relatively high milk production per cow, achieved mainly with good nutrition and excellent cow comfort, is needed to make robots a profitable choice for the owner. He distributed a data sheet that compares the economics of various production systems and emphasized that an average of 60 pounds of milk per day per cow would not turn a profit in robotic milking system.
"Labor is a huge cost difference with robotic milking," Hahn pointed out. "But there's more cost for interest and on the depreciation of equipment."
Diederich noted that one important ingredient for the success of a robotic milking system is avoiding lameness in the cows. Regular foot trimming is important and requiring cows to step through a footbath is part of the routine for getting them to the robots, he stated.
In reviewing the management choices that have been made along the way, Diederich observed that one possible change could have been to choose milking rather than feeding as the first step in the routine for the cows.
There are also times when he wishes the free-stall barn would have headlocks and brisketboards and the internal gates would have been positioned so that one person could move through them with no difficulty or concerns, Diederich continued.
What Diederich is very pleased with is the activity monitoring system that indicates when a cow is in heat and has improved pregnancy rates by four-six percentage points. He showed examples of the printouts that vividly show one cow will show evidence of enhanced activity for up to six hours while another does so for one hour, making human observation of an actual heat very unlikely.
Diederich also listed some other possibilities that are available from DeLaval or other sources but are not in use at the farm. They include the rumination tracking, DeLaval's Herd Navigator program for health tests, which he described as quite expensive, and the cowside tests for bovine viral diarrhea and mastitis and with ketone strips.
Although "no fetching" of cows for milking is a major reason for having a robotic milking system, Diederich acknowledges that this task hasn't totally been eliminated. Heifers need to get accustomed to the protocol and cows that are sick or injured will show up on a list for missed milkings within a prescribed period, triggering a search for what the reason might be, he explained.
If Diederich has a typical day, he will change the milk filter (sock) every 4.5 hours, track cows that are overdue for milking, check the activity monitor chart for cows that are to be bred, and review other records that have been generated.
With those tasks, cropping duties, and other management obligations, he admitted that such tasks as cattle vaccinations are not always tended to when they should be.
When service on the robotic system is needed, it is provided by Modern Dairy Systems LLC, which has its business office at Kaukauna and satellite operations at Luxemburg, Elkhart Lake, Oconto Falls, and Gresham.
As a long-range goal, Diederich wants to double the size of the herd within five-seven years. That would also mean the purchase of four more robots with each able to handle 60-70 milking cows for an average of between two and three milkings each per day.
The farm's location might prove to be a hindrance on that goal, Diederich realizes. Because it is only one mile from the De Pere city limits and there are already numerous residences in the vicinity, having access to enough land within a reasonable distance for crop production and manure application is likely to be a challenge.
Diederich can be reached by phone at 920-371-8414 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. He also invites interested persons to check the Diederich farm's Facebook page.