Hinchleys go robotic - milking that is

John Oncken

“We drove the 160 cows down what I’ve called “Drovers Lane” from the old tie stall barn and the freestall to the new barn on Dec. 4,” Duane Hinchley explained.  “And that was the start of a new era in dairying for Duane and Tina Hinchley, Cambridge, as they began milking with four Lely robots in the just-built 127 by 300 slatted floor, insulated dairy barn.

You may remember this column from Nov. 16, last year when you read about the Hinchley’s plans to move away from the tedious process of milking 140 cows in a 75 stall barn, something that meant the switching of cows twice a day and not very enjoyable hard work. They had been planning a new dairy facility for a number of years. 

Switching cows for years

“I’ve been switching cows all my milking days,” Duane said. “That’s a lot of work and I’ll be glad when we don’t do that anymore. We’ve nearly finished building and plan to begin moving cows in early December, come down and take a look.

Duane and Tina Hinchley, Cambridge entered the the robotic milki ng era on Dec. 4, 2018. They love their Udder Tech clothing.

Of course I did and reported my observations on my visit in early November.  A new dairy barn, a month before the cows come in is a glorious sight: no manure on the floor, shiny steel everywhere and the smell of newness. A crew from Argall Dairy Systems at Belleville were at work installing the Lely Astronaut A5 milking robots (the latest edition Lely  robot) with plans to begin milking in early December.  

Duane and Tina showed me the DCC Waterbeds already installed in the 229 cow stalls by  Advanced Comfort Technology at Sun Prairie. “We want to provide cow comfort  but we didn’t want to use sand bedding,” Tina says. “Sand is hard on pumps and mechanical equipment.” 

I left the Hinchleys with an upbeat feeling: After reading and hearing so much doom and gloom about goings on in the dairy industry it was great to spend a couple of upbeat hours with Tina and Duane. 

Three months later

It’s now mid-February and the robots have been doing the milking for two and a half months — it was time for a revisit to the Hinchley dairy and their new lifestyle.

“We got into the new barn on Dec. 4 at 4 p.m.,” Duane began. “We had a lot of help from friends.” It turned out there were seven helpers in the moving crew plus Tina and Duane.

“We spent about a week getting the cows familiar with their new setup,” Duane says. “And, the first milkings were down in volume.”  

“Being milked in a sort of a cage was different for them, I’d guess,” Tina said. “Either I or Duane were there most of the time during that early period."

Contented cows.

3,3 and 3

“The saying is ‘three days to get most cows using the robots, three weeks to get them comfortable and three months for the owners (us) to become comfortable with the system’ and that seems to be about right,” Duane says. “And we still have some time to go — we’re still learning.”

It turns out only one cow of the now over 200 milking had to be let go. “Her teats were too close together and the robot couldn’t attach properly,” Tina says. 

To Hawaii

The Hinchleys knew they had a Land O’Lakes (Winfield) rewards vacation trip to Hawaii scheduled for mid-January but with the newness of the robots were hesitant to leave the dairy. But, their daughter Anna, a dairy science student at the UW-Madison insisted they go — she would be on semester break and would take care of the dairy during their absence.

So, they made the trip. Anna, who plans to return to the farm after gaining her degree took care of the dairy, including the birth of a number of calves. A friend Justin Storlie, Jefferson, mixed the TMR and did the feeding and all went well at the dairy during their vacation.  

Milk in the container without human hands touching it.

“And, through the miracle of a series of cameras at the dairy and our IPhones we could see what was going on at the dairy, at any time,” Duane said. 

Meeting a friend

The Hinchleys also told about another interesting happening while in Hawaii. 

“We ran into Ron Kuhls who had recently retired as a sales manager for Wieser Concrete, the company who put the slatted floor in the barn,” Tina said.

“We had dinner together and it was fun, Duane continued. “I believe we were the last big account he worked with before retiring and he and his wife just happened to be in Hawaii at the same time we were.”

No surprises

The cows are calm and comfortable and yes the herd is still in transition with some “fetch cows” slow to enter the milking process. But, so far there have not been any surprises with the four robots.

“We planned a long time for this,” Duane says. “Perhaps the biggest worry is losing a cell phone — that’s where so much information is stored." With that he pulled his cell phone out of a secure pocket in his “Udder Tech” overalls.  

The barn will hold 240 milk cows in addition to maternity and calving pens.

Both Tina and Duane were outfitted with these waterproof, windproof and warm Udder Tech overalls.“These are the greatest,”  Duane emphasized with Tina in full agreement.

Tina then told about the recent tour of the dairy by a group of Chinese teenagers who had probably not visited a dairy barn before.

“They and their Rock county hosts were amazed at the size of the cows and the robotic milking,” Tina says. “And, they (like many visitors do) left an interior barn gate open and we had a cow wandering the hall leading to the bulk tank. She did no damage and Duane has a picture of her standing in the hallway."

How many employees do the HInchleys have at their 2200 acre, 240 cow (when the barn is full) dairy is probably a common question. In an uncommon answer, Duane says. “We have none except for some part-time help during harvest and on a few other occasions."

Information galore

The amount of cow and milk production records available through the Lely system is almost endless and the Hinchleys have long used the SCR dairy record system so they are familiar with detailed cow records. Tina will ultimately do more of the record work with Anna getting involved down the road. 

Learning to use the records is a long process.

Both Duane and Tina admit that their nutritionist Elizabeth French from United Co-op at Beaver Dam has been a great help. “She’s a robot expert,” Duane says.

More barn features

The entire slatted barn floor is covered with rubber matting. The milk room has a 7,000 gallon BouMatic bulk tank. The cows rest on DCC waterbeds topped with sawdust  and the insulated barn has translucent panels (no curtains) for light and big fans for air movement.

“The temperature never got below 38 degrees during those cold days last week,” Duane says. 

After a couple of hours of most interesting conversation, I apologized to the Hinchleys for talking for too long a time with them. “That’s OK,” Tina said with a smile.  “I’ve been milking all the while while you have been here.” 

How true, how true! How different!

John F. Oncken owns Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.