Minnesota barn invests in robot technology

Nora G. Hertel
St. Cloud Times
In a Tuesday, March 6, 2018 photo, a self-driven machine cleans the feeding area of the dairy barn near Melrose, Minn.

MELROSE, MN (AP) — Isaak Hinnenkamp wasn't going to become a farmer.

That's what he said growing up in Melrose on a legacy dairy farm. Hinnenkamp, 34, left for college and stayed away for several years.

But he came back to his family's farm and to an industry plagued by uncertainty. Milk prices are low; changing trade and immigration policies affect farmers.

"A lot of people say, 'You ain't going to make it,'" Hinnenkamp told the St. Cloud Times. "That makes me want to prove them wrong."

To make it work, Hinnenkamp has some high-tech help. Two robotic milkers and three other robots that push food or manure do much of the grunt work in his 140-cow barn. He runs the farm with his mother Donna Jansen and his wife Kathryn Hinnenkamp. Two-thousand pigs on a nearby farm and 30 rental units help diversify their income.

His robots cost about $250,000 each and will take eight years to pay for themselves, Hinnenkamp said.

Every investment requires calculation and review of costs and benefits.

In a Tuesday, March 6, 2018 photo, Isaak Hinnenkamp talks about the operation of robotic milking equipment during a tour of his farm near Melrose, Minn.

"No matter what I'm doing, I'm going to pencil it out," Hinnenkamp said. "In farming, if you're not going to run a pencil, you're not going to make it."

Math was his favorite subject growing up. The farm is a mile north of the Melrose schools where Hinnenkamp played basketball and football in high school. He spent a year at St. Cloud State University and played football there.

He transferred to Alexandria Technical and Community College where he studied manufacturing engineering technology and fluid power technology. That knowledge comes in handy as he works with robots daily.

The barn is a quiet place. The cows have waterbeds — water-filled mats in open stalls — they can use when they want to lay down. They have food available along one side of the pen. They get something like a candy (a corn pellet) when they're milked, Hinnenkamp said. And they line up to be milked by the robots when they want to.

"If we can make a cow's life boring and comfortable, we generally end up with a more productive cow," said David Tomsche, a veterinarian and owner of Leedstone, the Melrose-based supplier of Hinnenkamp's robots.

About 2 percent of cows in the country are milked by robots and that number is rising, he said.

"One by one, people are giving serious thought to box robot barns," Tomsche said. The other robotic system available is a carousel parlor, where the cows are gathered up and put in stalls arranged in a circle that rotates.

In a Tuesday, March 6, 2018 photo, a robotic machine milks a cow on the Isaak Hinnenkamp farm near Melrose, Minn.

Some farmers are sticking with their tie-stall barns, in which they hook up their cows by hand to an automatic milker in the stall.

About half of Minnesota's roughly 3,200 dairy farms keep tie-stall barns, said Jim Salfer, regional educator for the University of Minnesota Extension Dairy Program. That places Hinnenkamp on the front lines of change in Stearns County and the state.

"The more expensive labor is, the more appealing robots look," Salfer said. "Labor is really hard to find and about half the labor on a larger dairy is milking the cows."

Hinnenkamp used to spend nine hours a day milking 120 cows.

His father lobbied for the robotic system, because they needed to replace the barn anyway. Hinnenkamp's father died unexpectedly doing fieldwork in 2016, a couple years after the family launched the system with box robots.

That first three weeks in the barn with the robots were tough, Hinnenkamp said, because the cows weren't used to the system and the reward they got for milking.

"The first time you have to push them in," he said. "The first week you have to live out here."

In a Tuesday, March 6, 2018 photo,Isaak Hinnenkamp talks about the installation of robotic milking equipment and a new barn during a tour of his farm near Melrose, Minn.

Early in his presidency, President Donald Trump put a target on North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. Now there's talk of renegotiating NAFTA.

Those in the dairy industry do not want to lose Mexico and Canada as markets for their milk.

"We need to be able to get rid of our commodities beyond the United States," Hinnenkamp said. "We produce too much."

His cows produce about 3,000 gallons every two days. He sells it to Land O'Lakes.

Hinnenkamp has given up hope that the U.S. Farm Bill will help him. Some of the farmers who paid into to a public insurance program didn't reap any protection from it, he said.

Congress recently put some fixes in place for that Margin Protection Program for Dairy Farmers earlier this year, dropping premiums, waiving a fee and tweaking other details.

Dairy farmers also keep an eye on federal immigration policy. Immigrants provide labor on bigger midwestern dairy farms, but strong talk and new policies have curtailed illegal immigration from Mexico.

There are other challenges with farm labor — a shortage of workers across industries. And milking must be done in the morning and evening, requiring split shifts or part-time workers.

"It's a revolving door, trying to keep farm help," Hinnenkamp said. "It's dirty work and a lot of times you don't get paid very well."

He came back to the farm, in part because he wanted to be his own boss. It's a good place to raise a family too, he said. He has a daughter who's just over one, and his wife is due with another child in several weeks.

"I had to get up and work before school, so will they," Hinnenkamp said.

Automation means an end to long daily hours in the barn, but running a herd is still a 24/7 job. Hinnenkamp gets an alert on his phone if the milk isn't cooling, or if there's a series of failed milkings.

When cow No. 524 stepped up to the box for one of about three daily milkings last week, she weighed 1250 pounds. The robot scanned her udder and sprayed disinfectant before hooking her up for milking. When she finished, the machine disconnected, applied something to block bacteria and released her to the barn.

The data that robots collect can be used to tell if a cow is sick before it even shows symptoms, Salfer said. The future for dairy farmers likely holds more of that computing and data collection.

Hinnenkamp gets a reading on the cow's temperature, her weight and milk volume for each milking and the computer analyzes the data for him. He knows by temperature when a cow is ready to be bred.

"I know more about them than I know about myself," Hinnenkamp said.