Robotic milking system helps bring a new generation into family dairy operation

Dan Hansen

PULASKI – Having a member of a new generation join in the management and ownership of a family dairy farm is the desire of many families.

However, achieving that goal often requires surmounting various economic challenges. Often significant capital investment must be made in new facilities and equipment, and adding cows to the milking herd. This invest must be justified by generating sufficient additional revenue through increased milk production, milking efficiency and holding down labor costs.

Nischke family members currently active in the farm’s operation, from left, are: Kayla (Nischke) Coehoorn and husband, David; Connie and Wayne Nischke; and Ashley Nischke and Ricky Mickle.

The help make this a reality, Nischke Family Farms near Pulaski, recently completed installation of a new robotic milking setup, the first in Shawano County, according to UW-Extension Agriculture Agent Jamie Patton.

The facilities, upgraded from a tie stall barn, include two DeLaval Voluntary Milking System units, cow brushes, manure handling and more.

Farm family

In 1965, John and Dixie Nischke purchased the 100-acre farm and milked 50 cows.

Wayne and Connie Nischke purchased the farm from Wayne’s parents in 1991. They milked 60 cows and continued to grow the cropping operation. Prior to moving into the new barn they milked 80 cows, switching 22 head in the old tie-stall barn.

The family operation currently involves Wayne and Connie Nischke, daughters Kayla and Ashley, Kayla’s husband, David Coehoorn, and Ashley’s boyfriend, Ricky Mickle.

Wayne focuses on the crops and does custom cropping for neighbors. He also helps with the cattle and maintenance of the dairy. Connie is employed full tim at Nutrition Service Company in Pulaski, but also handles farm finances and helps with other farm work when needed.

Kayla, 24, works full-time on the farm where she manages the dairy herd and young stock, and helps with the fieldwork. David is employed full time at Bentley Family Farms and also feeds cows daily at the home farm and helps with maintenance and fieldwork.  David and Kayla currently own half the livestock and hope to take over more of the farm in the future.

Ashley and Ricky both have full-time jobs off the farm but help out on the farm as time allows. Both would like to become more involved in the farming operation in the future.

Robotic decision

Kayla told Wisconsin State Farmer that planning for the expansion began about 18 months ago. “We noticed our old tie-stall barn needed some work,” she said. “We wanted to get a little bigger so my husband and I could be more involved.”

A Juno robotic feed pusher keeps feed within easy reach of the animals throughout the day, and 26 fans help keep the cows cool and comfortable.

They considered renovating the old barn and building a parlor. “But we didn’t want to have to be there twice a day for milking or hire more workers,” Kayla explained.

Time spent at the farm show in Oshkosh helped them decide to go with a robotic milking system. “After seeing DeLaval robots working and talking with farmers, we decided to go with DeLaval, and we’ve been pleased with their milking equipment we had in our old barn,” she said.

New barn

Excavating for the new barn, which is 260 feet long and 120 feet wide, began in September of 2016. “The concrete work was done before winter,” Kayla said. “Work on the structure started near the end of February, and we started milking May 22.”

The new robotic barn can house 120 milking cows, 18 far-off dry cows and eight close-up dry cows. “We’re currently milking 110 cows but expect to be at 120 later this year,” Kayla noted.

The Nischkes generally raise their own herd replacements. “When we started milking in the new barn we bought 20 cows from area farmers. I also buy a few calves from local farmers,” Kayla said.

The pen on the north side includes Holstein cows 3 years and older. The pen on the south side holds 2-year-olds Jerseys and crossbreeds. “We chose this grouping based on size, milk production ability and dry-matter intake The pens on the east side hold dry cows,” she said.

Newborn calves are housed in hutches under an overhang on the south side of a near by shed, where they remain until weaned at about 8 weeks. They will then move to the old tie-stall barn which is currently being remodeled, where they’ll stay until six weeks before calving when they’ll be moved to the new freestall barn.

Cow comfort is provided by sand bedding and 26 fans (11 inside the barn and 15 on the wall, which maintain a constant fresh-air flow. A Juno robotic feed pushers also keeps feed within easy reach of the cows.

The Nischkes were able to utilize their existing gravity-flow manure pit.

DeLaval VMS

The two DeLaval voluntary milking system units are housed in a self-contained pod between the two groups of cows. Each unit can handle 60 cows per day.

The transition to the new system went smoothly, according to Kayla. “We had a good crew when we started on Monday, and by Thursday night the cows were going in on their own,” she said.

Since their first robotic milking, the Nischkes have seen an increase in production. “Currently, cows are averaging 2.75 milkings each day, producing a daily average of 80 pounds of milk. The somatic cell count is 125 and continuing to drop,” said Kayla.

The Smart Selection Gate allows only those cows with milking permission in DeLaval VMS. “They have to give a certain number of pounds of milk to enter the robot,” Kayla explained.

The system which provides information on each cow’s milk production also monitors cow activity. “If their activity level drops, it’s a sign they might be getting sick, she added.”

Kayla stressed that even though people aren’t needed to actually milk the cows, there’s still a lot of interaction with the animals. “We still have to work with our animals daily, and we have the other young stock to take care of. it’s still a lot of work, it’s just different work,” she said.