For more than half a century the Fietzer family dairy farm has been recognized for its innovative use of cutting-edge technology, and that innovation continues today with a robotic milking system at the heart of a recent dairy expansion.
During three generations, the family farming operation, headquartered along County Road N east of Manawa, has experienced steady growth ever since Ervin and Marcella (Behnke) Fietzer (grandparents of the current owners) began farming there in 1949 with six cows.
Marcella, who was raised on a farm in a nearby township, was enthusiastic about farming. “She loved milking cows and the daily chores that were part of the dairy operation,” recalled family members. They also noted that Ervin was an innovator, who looked for ways to farm smarter.
In 1968, they became one of the first farmers in Waupaca County to have a milking parlor and freestall barn. They milked in a double-8 parlor, and the freestall barn housed their herd of 160 animals.
The second generation
In 1979, 30 years after Ervin and Marcella began farming, their sons and wives — Darryl and Ardys, and Ronald and Beverly — purchased the farm.
The brothers and their wives brought the farm successfully through tough times after suffering fires in 1982 and 1983. They rebuilt the main barn, a five-row freestall barn, and installed a double-9 herringbone Germania parlor and built a new heifer barn. Both barns remain in use today.
By 1997, they were milking 180 cows with a daily per-cow herd average of 38 pounds of milk. Along the way, they also instilled their strong work ethic and love of farming in their sons, Kyle and Craig.
The third and fourth generations
It was now time for the first cousins to begin acquiring ownership in the farm. In 1996 Kyle purchased the cattle from his parents, Darryl and Ardys, and in 1997 (Craig) purchased the cattle from his parents, Ronald and Beverly. In 2004 (Kyle) and in 2006 (Craig) completed the purchase of their parents’ shares in the farm.
Today Fietzer Dairy Farm Inc. is owned by Kyle and his wife, Cindy, and Craig and his wife, Melissa. Together Kyle and Cindy have four children. Kyle has two sons, Alex and Brody; Cindy has two children, Jamie and Patrick. Craig and Melissa have four children: Amber, Brandon, Nathan and Grant.
While all major farm decision are made jointly by the partners, Kyle is primarily responsible for overseeing the cows and the milking; Craig’s primary areas of responsibility are crops and farm machinery.
Producing most of the feed for their animals, Fietzer dairy raises crops on 900 acres of land, 430 of which are owned. Crops include 260 acres of corn silage, 120 acres of wheat, 180 acres of soybeans, 210 acres of alfalfa, 10 acres of sorghum and 120 acres of grain corn.
The cousins continued to utilize new technologies as did their parents and grandparents. In 2008, they began TMR feeding, and in 2009, they built a pre-fresh/post-fresh barn to improve calving and transitioning. They also remodeled the main dairy barn to improve cow comfort.
In 2010, the focus was on improving genetics, calf-raising protocol, and animal housing.
Robotic research begins
They soon began began buying animals to maximize milk production from their facility. From December 2009 through 2011, 62 animals were added to the dairy herd.
It was at one of these dairy cattle sales that Craig and Melissa sat next to a farmer who was buying cows for her robotic milking system, and that’s when the conversation about robots began.
In 2012, family members toured several barns that used robotic milking systems, and a Juno robotic feed pusher was purchased.They also began using sexed semen to increase the milking herd.
During 2014, they participated in a three-state tour to view robot milking systems in use at a variety of dairies; they also began a cost-benefit analysis to determine if a robotic system would be financially viable.
To maximize the production of their growing herd, Fietzer dairy expanded to three milkings per day in 2015. Greenstone Farm Credit also approved financing, and the yearlong project of constructing a new barn and robotic milking system began in July with ground breaking for a new 5 million-gallon manure lagoon.
New barn, milking system
The expansion project features a new freestall barn that’s 410 feet long, 121 feet wide and 14 feet high. It has six rows of naturally ventilated stalls along with fans and daylong lighting.
The barn is designed for drive-through feeding and features sand bedding for improved cow comfort, while automatic scrapers remove manure from the stalls. Barn capacity is 360 animals, but the design is expandable to accommodate 480 milk cows.
Currently, the barn features six robots, but the system can be expanded to include two additional units. Each unit is able to milk 50-60 cows per day, depending on milk production. At capacity, a robot can collect approximately 6,000 pounds of milk per day.
The expansion project also included a new 75-by-350-foot concrete feed pad that’s six inches thick.
Fietzer Dairy also continues to utilize several other buildings. The maternity barn, built in 2009, houses 47 animals in stalls and about two dozen on bedding packs
The former dairy barn has been remodeled to house heifers. The primary heifer barn houses approximately 220 animals age 5-20 months.
Another rented barn houses approximately 45 long-bred heifers. Two calf barns are also utilized. One houses calves age 5-14 weeks, and the other accommodates calves from 15 to 22 weeks of age. Pre-weened calves are housed outside in individual calf hutches.
Benefits of robotic milking
A year ago Fietzer Dairy was milking 265 cows three times a day that were producing, on average, 85 pounds of milk per day. The milking schedule required five full-time employees and six part-time workers.
With the new robotic system, more than 280 cows are being milked between two and five times per day, with an average daily per-cow milk production of 95 pounds, and a peak of 103 pounds. They now employ four full-time workers and have only two parti-time employees.
In addition to saving labor, the Lely robotic system also enables the dairy to provide each cow with an individualize milking experience and supplemented pelletized feed during the milking process. Each cow is fed to maximize milk production while minimizing feed cost.
The robotic system also collects 144 data points each time a cow is milked. This includes monitoring milk conductivity, cow activity and each cow’s weight. The system also measures production by quarter during each milking, enabling early detection of mastitis, ketosis and other health issues.
Summing up their reaction to the new system, Craig and Kyle say the robots allow them to stabilize labor costs of harvesting milk, improve milk production and employee flexibility, while improving the quality of life for everyone involved in the farm’s operation.