Cow College tour highlights cutting-edge diverse dairy operations

Dan Hansen
2020 Cow College

WAUPACA COUNTY – Despite the recent challenges to Wisconsin’s dairy industry, family farms continue to invest in the future of dairying.

Two such farms are located in eastern Waupaca County, and are being operated by third-generation members of farm families. They were featured during a tour that concluded the 58th annual Cow College presented by UW-Extension and Fox Valley Technical College.

The tour began at Fietzer Farms, east of Manawa, where more than 360 cows are milked with a Lely robotic system in a six-row natural ventilated barn. The tour also included a visit to Clinton Farms, west of Bear Creek, where 500 cows are currently milked in a 50-cow Waikato rotary parlor.

Fietzer Farms

Today Fietzer Dairy Farm Inc. is owned by first cousins Kyle and Craig and Kyle’s wife, Cindy, and Craig’s wife, Melissa. Together Kyle and Cindy have four children. Craig and Melissa have four children.

While all major farm decisions 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.

They focused on improving genetics, calf-raising protocol, and animal housing, and soon began buying animals to maximize milk production from their facility. That, and the realization that it was becoming difficult to find people to staff their three-times-a-day milking, led them to consider a robotic system.

“We did cost projections on the barn and all the equipment,” said Melissa. “And we expected the system to pay for itself in 10 years,” said Craig, “but low milk prices the last three years, have extended that time.”

In 2015, they began a yearlong project of constructing a new barn, robotic milking system and a new 5 million-gallon manure lagoon. The freestall barn is 410 feet long, 121 feet wide and 14 feet high. It has six rows of naturally ventilated stalls along with fans and daylong lighting.

This cow stands ready to be milked in the Lely robotic unit at Fietzer Dairy.

Robotic benefits

Currently, the barn features six robots, but the system can be expanded to include two additional units.

“Right now we’re putting nearly 65 cows per day through each robot, and the cows are averaging just under three trips each day,” said Kyle.

The robotic system 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.

Maintenance on the robotic units is a little higher than was anticipated, averaging about $10,000 per year. “But both Kyle and I are mechanically handy,” Craig explained, “and that helps keep cost down. Also, the Lely service techs are good at talking us through solving problems on the phone.

“Our somatic cell count has stayed the same,” noted Craig. “But we’re treating a lot fewer cows, down from about 10 a month in the old barn to around one per month,” added Kyle.

Keeping cows longer

Cow comfort has improved in the new barn with sand bedding. “It’s a little harder on some of the equipment,” said Craig, “but it helps our cows live a longer, more productive life.”

On average, about 8 pounds of pellets are fed to cows to bring them into the robots. “Our goal is to achieve a balance between the pellets and our TMR ration,” said Kyle. “We want to give the cow as much protein as possible from the feed we grow,” Craig emphasized. 

Sand bedding provides cow comfort in the Fietzers’ freestall barn.

Daily milk production is averaging around 32,000 pounds, with a current daily herd average of 90 pounds.

Both Craig and Kyle agree, that after nearly four years, the robots have allowed them to stabilize labor costs of harvesting milk, improve milk production, employee flexibility and quality of life.

Clinton Farms

The Clinton family recently established an LLC to enable Brad and Carrie (Clinton) Griepentrog, who have worked on the farm full-time for several years, to take a more active role in the farm’s management with their parents, Jim and Sue.

To help ensure that they, and future generations of the family, can remain competitive in the dairy industry, the family embarked on a major expansion in 2018.

Some may wonder why the Clintons would begin expanding with a new parlor during the time of low milk prices.

“We had to expand now because we were spending about 18 hours a day milking our herd of 500 cows three times a day in our old double-6 flat-barn parlor,” stressed Carrie.

Cows view the inside of the carousel as they make their way around on the composite deck of rotary parlor at Clinton farms.

Rotary parlor

A new 212-stall freestall barn was constructed that includes fans and alley scrapers that are computer controlled. “It’s a six-row building with two feed alleys,” said Brad. “This allows us to move a bigger group to the parlor, which is much more efficient.”

A 250-cow holding area leads into the parlor that features a 50-stall Waikato Centrus Composite Rotary Milking System, Stainless HD stalls, milk meters Navigate Dairy Management System and SmartD-Tect.

Milking began in the new parlor in early July 2019. “We can now milk from 300 to 350 cows an hour,” said Brad. “But we’re not that pressed for time, so we’re milking about 275 an hour. The parlor gives us the capability to expand to 2,000 cows.”

“We have two people milking and one cow pusher. The first person will wipe the udder and the second will attach the teat cups,” Brad explained. “We don’t strip because the milker will actually stimulate the cows,” said Brad. “Then it will milk each quarter separately for a few seconds. it will test the quarter and will test for high conductivity which might be a sign she’s coming down with mastitis.” 

When the cows step on the parlor an automatic sprayer sprays the udder from under their hind legs and as the cow goes around and the milker comes off, she’s post dipped by an automatic sprayer.

“There’s no bulk tank,” Brad noted. “The milk goes through the chiller and directly into the semi tanker which is nearly filled and the milk is picked up every morning.”

When cows leave the parlor they go through a three-way sort gate where a computer reads every cow.

At Clinton Farms, two people handle milking for each of the three shifts. After the first cleans the cow's teats, the second attaches the milk machines.

“If she’s just a normal cow, she’ll go straight back to the freestall barn,” Brad said. “If the cow needs attention, like hoof trimming or a vet check, she’ll go into a bigger pen on the left, and then there’s a smaller narrow alley on the right where cows go for vaccinations. That saves us a lot of time instead of us having to chase them around in the freestall barn.”

There are two footbaths on the way back to the barn. “They can go through either one, and they’re all computerized and run seven days a week and have been working very well,” explained Brad.