Fair Oaks Farms opens robotic milking facility

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Joakim Rosengren, president and CEO of DeLaval, second from left, and Mike McCloskey, co-founder of Fair Oaks Farms, second from right, during a ribbon cutting ceremony in November 2019 to announce the opening of a new robot barn and visitor area at the dairy facility.

Mike and Sue McCloskey are taking innovation and technology to the next level at Fair Oaks Farms with a new 780-cow freestall barn equipped with a dozen milking robots.

Located along Interstate 65 in northeast Indiana, Fair Oaks Farms — spread out across nearly 30 square miles — is represented by nine families milking over 36,000 cows, and is considered one of the nation's largest dairy operations. The farm has also become a popular agritourism destination, drawing over half a million visitors each year. 

This spring, visitors will have the opportunity to visit the newest addition to the farm that not only provides a close-up look at the latest technology in the dairy industry, but is also a move that many large-scale milk producers are exploring in a search for solutions addressing animal welfare, milk quality, production and the shortage of skilled employees.

Around 780 of the cows will be milked by DeLaval VMS robots at the new "Robotic Dairy" next to Prairie's Edge Dairy Farms LLC — one of the nine farms that each milks around 3,000 cows on a 72-cow rotary parlor, and is viewed as part of the Dairy Adventure tour at Fair Oaks Farms.

Gavin Strang, DeLaval Market Development Director for North America, said Fair Oaks Farms co-owner and founder, Mike McCloskey, visited Madison, Wis., back in June 2018 when DeLaval unveiled its all-new Voluntary Milking System VMS™ V300 to producers and industry representatives at their robotic milking conference, VMS PRO North America.

"Robotics milking technology has been around for 20+ years, but the evolution of the technology has almost made it a natural progression for these large producers," Strang said. "And (McCloskey) wanted to take that next step and explore robotics for himself."

Strang said Mike and Sue McCloskey had been exploring the idea of robotics for several years. During a sneak peak ribbon-cutting ceremony held in November 2019 announcing the opening of the new facility, McCloskey told those gathered that the new milking system "really meets our dairy farm’s sustainability effort and well-being for cows. It is a nice step forward in productivity and comfort”.

“Not just a step, it truly is a jump forward in that effort,” McCloskey said.

The strategic location of "Robotic Dairy" is multi-facted. By sitting adjacent to an existing 3,000-cow dairy operation, the project supplied a way for the McCloskey's to expand cow numbers while continuing to share infrastructure resources already in place.

From the observation deck, visitors can watch the normal traffic and activities of the milking herd below, including how they enter and exit the robotic milkers.

"They will continue to share the existing feed sites and manure facilities," Strang said. 

McCloskey told those at the ribbon-cutting ceremony that the "bottleneck to expansion was the milking parlor" at the Prairie's Edge Dairy Farm, which was already running 24-hours a day at capacity.

With the "Robotic Dairy" maintaining its own automated milking system, only two additional employees would be needed to man the operation, thus allowing the farm to expand cow numbers in a smaller increment.

Strang says the McCloskey's have not made a decision on whether to convert all of Fair Oaks Farms to robots.

"Right now the rotary operation serves as an educational side as well," he said.

Strang says DeLaval's new series of robotic milking systems fits with Fair Oaks Farms' goal of providing cows with the ultimate in comfort.

"With these systems, truly the cow is on her own terms and comes and goes as she pleases, whereas a conventional system, milking a cow is on the farmer's routine three times a day," he said. "In this facility using sophisticated gates and ID tracking on the cow, she is free to eat, drink, rest or get milked."

Strang says the A-frame design created by WeCover Structures is part of the McCloskey's foresight and innovative thinking.

Windows above the robot room will allow visitors to observe the robotic milkers below. Monitors in the observation gallery above will allow guests to view live feeds from each robot.

The 160 x 722 foot custom dairy barn is covered with a fabric panel roof for natural light and ventilation, supported by a durable hot-dip galvanized steel frame. The second floor features a Plexiglas visiting room for guided tour groups.

"Our company’s unique fabric covered roof will provide an abundance of natural light for the 780 of the farm’s cows. It is an accepted fact that natural light improves production and overall herd health, which are some major benefits to this cutting-edge facility,” said John E. Weaver, President and Coowner at WeCover Structures Inc. in a news release.

McCloskey stated that the building technology creates a "controlled environment that offers light and fresh air, two important ingredients for the success of Fair Oaks Farms' new robotic milking operation".

"(McCloskey) chose this construction that creates a comfortable, light and bright environment, but it's also part of his vision to best represent animal welfare and cow comfort," Strang said. "And he did his homework on what would be the ultimate brand-new facility for cows."

The barn is divided into four pens, each having 200 sand-bedded stalls. The cows in each individual pen are serviced by three robots which are expected to collect enough milk to fill one tanker truck per day.

The 12 robots are located in a cluster at the center of the barn contained in a single room making it not only efficient for employees to clean and maintain the equipment, but the viewing window above gives visitors up in the observation deck the opportunity to watch the equipment below in action.

"The viewing window from the gallery which provides a window out into the barn and over the central robot rooms, allows tourists to see how the cows move around in their environment," he said. "The sophisticated equipment also includes large monitors that explain to visitors in detail exactly what's going on and why."

Using cameras fixed at different angles, visitors can zoom in on different aspects of the milking process. A monitor also shows guests data collected from each cow milked by the robot.

Strang says DeLaval partnered with Fair Oaks Farms to fund the visitor center as a way to showcase the technology on the farm and the people and animals who use it.

"DeLaval has always admired Fair Oaks Farms for not only being progressive and open to tourism, but promoting dairy as well. We felt a natural partnership where we can show the next generation of milking technology," Strang said. 

To bring that technology to life in a way that visitors of all ages would appreciate and understand, former Disney imagineer (mechanical engineer) Marshall Monroe was tapped to bring the robotic dairy educational experience to a whole new level.

"This five minute long theater production helps both educate adults and children about dairy, agriculture and technology in this fantastic experience using a full-sized milking robot and digital cow," Strang said.

Fair Oaks Farms is comprised of nine dairies which milk approximately 3000 cows three times a day on a 72-stall rotary milking parlor.

Giving guests a birds-eye view of cow comfort helps to convey to the public Fair Oaks Farms' commitment to the welfare of the animals in its care.

"What robots have done is allowed the cow to be on her own clock and routine. As humans, we all have different energy levels and different routines and a cow is no different," Strang said. "We need to make sure she's well fed, rested and gets milked. And if we can provide those in a robotic sense, we help to remove any stressors of us needing to facilitate the milking process."

He added that the routines, and eliminating some of the human labor interacting with cows all adds up to a better experience for the animal.

"Just as humans feel better in a new, more comfortable house, so are these new robotic dairies going up. They have improved the progress of what's gone before," he said. 

While the robotic facility has been milking cows since April of 2019, Strang says the "Robotic Dairy" is expected to be officially opened to tourists sometime this spring.