Henschel’s new robotic barn saves labor, improves family quality of life

Dan Hansen
Wisconsin State Farmer
Chris “Bucky” Henschel (left), his mother, Diana, and dad, Jeff, provide most of the labor for their dairy operation.

MANAWA – Wisconsin dairy farmers are well known for their resilience and perseverance in overcoming challenges and even adversity.

Jeff and Diana Henschel, who farm in central Waupaca County, have persevered despite two barn fires in 2002, to modernize and expand their operation that now includes a new state-of-the-art robotic milking barn.

The couple purchased the farmstead with 60 acres from an unrelated farmer in 1990. Their herd of registered Holsteins has grown from 45 cows to more than 350 today. For many years they’ve been a premier Holstein breeder with cattle and genetics sold worldwide under the name JeffAna Holsteins.

Following the fires, Jeff and Diana built a new 100-cow tie-stall barn with tunnel ventilation that featured better handling and viewing for the sale of cattle and genetics, which provided a significant portions of their income at the time. They also added three new heifer barns, a dry-cow and transition cow barn, three solos, a manure storage system and a new workshop/machine shed.

Robotic thoughts

After their son, Chris “Bucky” joined the operation several years ago, the family began exploring the viability of building a robotic freestall barn. Meanwhile, they converted that 15-year-old tie-stall barn into a positive pressure ventilated calf barn with 68 individual 4x8 pens that also included six freshening pens and a bedded pack with head locks for 25 pre-fresh animals.

In 2017, they built a 6-row, sand-bedded, tunnel ventilated free-flow robotic milking barn with six Lely A4 units. They currently milk 350 registered Holsteins with a maximum capacity of 390 head, including two pens for special-needs cows. A herd from southern Wisconsin was purchased for the new barn, and additional animals were purchased at dispersal sales.

In December, 2017, they began milking in the barn that was built according to Jeff’s design, and features four robotic units clustered around the robot room near the middle on the building’s west end and two addition units for special needs cows.

“This makes everything really efficient and cuts way down on the cost because anytime you build more robot rooms, it really runs up the cost,” said Jeff.

“And I like the idea of having a feed alley all the way around the outside because it’s more sanitary. You can walk all the way around this barn and into the robot center without getting your shoes dirty, and we can drive  a truck around inside the barn at midnight, if needed, to check on the cows,” he added.

Jeff cited labor savings, flexibility and family quality of life as the main reasons for their move to robotics.

“Our quality of life is so much better with the robots,” he said. “This was the first year, for as long as I’ve been farming, that none of us had to be in the barn for milking on Christmas.” 

In addition to the work done by the family, one additional full-time employee helps fetch cows and maintains stalls in the robot barn, along with cleaning and bedding the heifer pens.

Milk increase, breeding info

Jeff acknowledged that it was a three-month challenge to train their cows to use the robots, but after they got used to the system, milk production improved to a daily average of 86 pounds per cow, with a rolling herd average of 28,000 pounds, 3.8 percent fat and 3.2 percent protein. Milk quality also has improved with the somatic cell count below 100,000.

Milking activity of four robotic can be conveniently viewed from a center aisle.

Cows are milked an average of 2.6 times per day.

“But that is deceiving,” explained Jeff. “We have over 200 cows now that are giving 90 plus pounds of milk, and they’re going through an average of 3.8 times per day.”

Transponders on each cow’s neck communicate with the computer to control how often she is allowed to enter the robot.

“That transponder also tracks how many times she’s chewing her cud and monitors when they’re coming into heat,” Jeff. “The information we get is almost overwhelming.”

Bucky oversees the breeding program of cows in the robotic barns along with the barn’s general operation and maintenance of the robotic system.

“It also provides us with information on the cows’ heat activity, so we know the best time to breed them, and it also let’s us know if there’s been no activity so we can have her check by the vet,” he said.

Sexed semen is used on the top cows first and second service, conventional semen the third time if necessary.

“We’re not really doing anything special with our breeding program because of the robots,” noted Jeff. “We’re continuing to breed good, sound cows because that’s what we’ve been doing for 30 years, and that’s what it takes to make milk.”

Feeding/Manure handling

The Henschels work with a nutritionist to deliver a single PMR diet of 60 percent corn silage, 40 percent haylage, plus HMSC and a protein mix once each day. An 18 percent pellet is also fed during milking based on the individual cow activity monitoring system.

Post-fresh mature cows are penned together for two weeks, and three weeks for first-calf heifers. All herd replacement heifer calves are raised on the farm, and bull calves are sold. Pre-dry off includes milking once per day for a week with limited pellets (4 pounds per day) at milking. A normal dry period (60) days includes a diet of silage, oatlage and purchased dry hay.

Run-off from the old tie-stall barn cow year is collected and stood in an above-ground (Harvestore) storage unit. Manure from the milking barn is collected by alley scrappers and pumped underneath the highway to a 5.7 million gallon concrete pit, and the liquid manure is custom applied. The current year-round storage could also be emptied twice each year if another barn is added north of the existing robot barn.

The Henschel farm currently covers 1,500 acres of cropland, including 600 acres of corn silage and grain, 600 acres of alfalfa haulage and 300 acres of soybeans for grain. All forages are stored in tower silos and silage bags.