Wichman farm still high on robotic milking after 3 years

Dan Hansen
Cow comfort, provided by sand bedding, is vital to the success of the Wichman farm. The cows also have plenty of feed and water within each reach.

APPLETON - On Jan. 24, the 2017 Cow College featured a tour of three Outagamie County farms that have adopted cutting-edge technology to help save time, labor and money.

The first stop for the 100-plus tour participants was the multi-generational Wichman dairy farm north of Freedom. In November of 2013, the family moved its Holstein herd from a tie-stall barn to a state-of-the-art 240-cow freestall barn that featured four Lely Astronaut Robotic Milking units.

Faye Wichman recalled that the farm has had a steady stream of visitors since installing its automatic milking system (AMS). “We’ve even had groups from foreign countries who didn’t speak English and required an interpreter.”

Bruce and Faye Wichman presented key details of their robotic milking system to over 100 northeast Wisconsin dairy producers and other industry professionals during the recent Cow College farm tour.

There are two robots on each side of the barn, and cows are able to go to either robot on their side, so if one robot goes down the cows can still go through the other one. The barn was designed with a higher ridge to promote natural ventilation, which along with sand bedding, increases cow comfort. Some stalls are built for smaller animals, some for larger animals.

“During our first year, we had high milk prices, and that helped us get off to a good start,” said Bruce Wichman one of the owners. He added that fresh cows are still milked twice in a barn across the road before they’re moved to the automatic milking facility.

He explained that they made the switch to Lely milking equipment because they wanted to go with a free-flow milking system. “We might have a few more fetch cows, but we soon find out which cows are robot cows and which aren’t, like cows that take a long time to milk,” he said.

“Even though they’re operating 24 hours a day, the robots only have so much time they can milk,” Wichman said. “Right now we’re down to 7-8 percent free time, which is about as efficient as we can get.”

On average, cows are milked 2.7 times per day. “But we have some that get milked 5 times a day, and then our tail-enders get milked about twice a day. We want to keep things moving so our high producing cows get milked 4-5 times a day,” he stressed. “Our production per cow increased 12-15 pounds since we made the change.”

Currently, the herd has a seven-day average of 84.3 pounds of milk per cow and a somatic cell count (SCC) of 105,000. “Our highest average was 91-92 pounds per day, and our SCC as been as low as 70,000 to 80,000,” Wichman said.

Their cull rate is around 35 percent. “It’s three strikes and they’re out,” he remarked. “A slow milker with a high SCC or other problems goes down the road. We don’t use sexed semen or BST, and we have 23 cows on our do-not-breed list.”

For cow comfort, the Wichmans used mattresses in their old barn, but feel the switch to sand bedding was a good move. They attribute their increased production to this, along with more times milking per day, and better feed pushup by their robotic Juno feed pusher.

Fresh-cow protocols are an important part of their herd management. “We’ve found they come up on milk better with our robot system,” he said. “Cows with rear teats that cross get milked two times in late lactation so our AMS can find the teats and attach better. Also, cows that tend to kick aren’t allowed to be milked at night, which saves us from having to make trips to the barn in the middle of the night.”

Cows are fed, on average, 8.5 pounds of pellets per milking. “Cows with a 90-pound average get 9.2 pounds of pellets; cows giving under 85 pounds of milk get 7.89 pounds,” Wichman said. “The highest amount of pellets we ever fed was 11 pounds per cow.”

Hoof care is another key component of a successful AMS. “It’s important to stay current on hoof trimming, or we tend to have more fetch cows,” Wichman related. “Foot baths are a regular part of our daily milking, and cows are required to go through a foot bath on their way to be milked. Good feet and good teats are keys to our success.”

Maintenance costs on the AMS turned out be somewhat higher than originally projected, at just over $9,000 per unit, “but costs have been reduced somewhat over time,” Wichman remarked. “In over three years, we’ve had just one robot down for four hours.”

When asked if they would change anything after three years, Wichman mentioned only a couple minor changes like adding a drain in the milk house and relocating the foot baths to help the cows flow more smoothly to the AMS

"We did our homework before hand, so we got everything pretty much the way we wanted, and it’s been working well for us,” he said.