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ROSENDALE – The Madigan family at Rosendale wanted to modernize their 160-cow, 750 acre dairy farm at Rosendale but they didn’t want to increase their cow numbers and expand.

That’s why they chose to install two Lely robotic milking units, placed strategically at the end of their existing freestall barn, and continue to use their existing parlor to milk the remainder of their herd.

Kevin Madigan told about 70 people visiting his farm for the Dodge-Fond du Lac County Forage Councils’ joint twilight meeting last week that the system works well.

“We utilize the parlor for cows that don’t adapt well to robots and for fresh cows, and late-lactation cows,” he says. “In addition, we didn’t want to give up our dry-cow treatment with Orbeseal. It’s easier to handle the fresh cows that have been treated in the parlor rather than the robots. We really like having our fresh cows come in without mastitis.”

The product he is referring to is an antibiotic-free paste that acts as a physical barrier against mastitis-causing bacteria, locking them out for the entire dry period. While it is possible to use this protocol for cows milked in a robot, he says it is simpler just to milk the fresh cows in the parlor.

He says by keeping their existing parlor, they also could get by with purchasing just two robots instead of three for their 160-cow herd. Currently, robots milk 110 of the cows and the rest remain in the parlor.

Madigan says before they selected a robotic milking system they researched the systems that are available and visited other farms. After visiting a farm that had two robots installed at the end of their current freestall barn they knew they could make it work on their farm.

Their biggest challenge was keeping the robot area warm enough in the coldest months of winter.

They installed in-floor heat but he says with the cold Wisconsin winds, that just wasn’t enough. They ended up putting in vinyl strips that cows can walk through to get into the robot area. Those strips kept out the wind but it was still cold in the milking area.

This winter they plan to put in additional heat by capturing some of the heat from their existing water heater and blowing it into the milking area.

The family started using the robots in early November.

Madigan says, “It took a little while to get the cows to adapt but now the cows are noticeably calmer.”

When there are any issues the robotic system automatically calls Madigan’s smart phone. He says problems are generally easily fixed. Often it is because rain causes the pellets to plug up in the tube and he only needs to go out and pound on the tube to free the pellets.

Cows are lured into the milking robot by a special pellet that tastes good and provides energy to the cows. Cows generally like the pellets and sometimes the robots turn them away when they are not ready for milking but just want to go through for a treat.

Like any robotic system, there are some cows that do not come in for milking according to their needs. Known as “fetch cows,” these cows must then be rounded up and directed to an area where the only way out is through the robot.

Madigan says, “On our farm I’ve noticed that weather seems to make a difference. If there is a low pressure system or heat, we have more fetch cows. They just don’t want to move around and come through to get milked.”

Like most farms adapting robotic technology, they did notice an increase in milk production after the system was in place. That is likely because some cows were only being milked twice a day and now go through more often. Also, cows appear to have less stress with the robotic system.

“Cows used to move away from us when we approached. Now they come right up to us and rub up against us,” he states.

Better management

Regarding milk production, Madigan offered his opinion on what is currently happening in the dairy industry.

Referring to letters many of his neighbors received in April indicating that they need to find a new market for their milk, he said, “I think it’s time that we as dairy farmers figure out how to manage our milk better. There comes a point where we need to ask ourselves what it is we are doing.”

He illustrated, “California producers ruined their market with over-production and now they are very highly regulated.”

Noting that some cooperatives are beginning to look at the issue, Madigan concluded by saying, “I think there is a way we can figure out how to use some sort of supply management program. We need to be smart about it.”

Madigan and his wife Patty, together with his brother Justin and his wife Kathryn are the fourth generation to operate the farm since 2001 after taking over from their parents and uncle. Their dad, Terry, still helps on the farm.

Their cropping system includes alfalfa, winter rye and Sudan grass, corn, soybeans, winter wheat and canning peas.

The topic of the forage council’s twilight meeting was cover crops and Madigan joined other farmers and speakers in a discussion about their experiences raising various cover crops.

The Madigans do a variety of techniques including vertical tillage, strip tillage, and no till.

“Whatever it takes to keep our soil in place,” he says. “We put our manure on top in thin layers because we have plenty of land for the number of cows in our herd.”

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