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Michigan dairies featured in robotic milking panel discussion

Ashley Messing-Kennedy Published on 20 May 2013

One of the more unique items on the recent Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference schedule was the robot producer panel. The four different farms represented on the panel were of varying sizes with different robotic systems.

The producers in attendance were lucky enough to hear from farm owners and managers with all of the three major different robot styles available in the U.S. currently.

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Ben Schaendorf of Schaendorf Dairy in Allegan, Michigan, represented the DeLaval VMS system. The Schaendorf family has a 25-stall parallel milking parlor and have three DeLaval robots on the farm, where they milk 1,900 cows total.

The robots were installed in October 2012 and they milk 165 first-lactation cows in them. The robotic herd has a milk production of 63 pounds of milk and a somatic cell count of 90,000.

Tom Oesch, Jr. of Swisslane Dairy in Alto, Michigan, was one of two farms with the Lely brand of robots. The herd milks about 500 cows with eight Lely A4 model robots that were installed in November of 2011.

The herd has a total of 1,800 cows, with the rest being milked in a parlor. The robot herd averages about 88 pounds of milk with a 120,000 somatic cell count.

Margie Weiss was the second dairy producer with the Lely brand of robots. Margie is the sixth generation on Weiss Centennial Dairy near Frankenmuth, Michigan, where they have a Lely A3 Next model.

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The herd averages about 78 pounds of milk and has a 130,000 somatic cell count. The robot was installed in June of 2011, and they have one robot that milks their 60 cows.

The fourth member of the panel was Amy Martin of Leroy, Michigan. Martin and her family manage a 300-cow dairy farm with eight GEA robots.

The farm was half-full and is expanding from within to fill the barns and use the robots to their full potential. Currently, the cows average about 70 pounds of milk and have a 220,000 somatic cell count.

The discussion began with panelists responding to how feed costs have changed on the farm with the robots. Oesch said their feed costs have gone up some because they began feeding a pellet in the robot.

Martin said that because they had always bought a little dry corn, the costs of the total ration have not gone up a great deal, just slightly. Schaendorf said they are paying a little more in total feed costs, but they have their robots set to feed the lowest feed rate at about 4 pounds of pellets per day.

Weiss said their feed costs have gone up some, but they were able to offset them some by putting corn into the corn bank at their local elevator.

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The panel was questioned on whether the amount of production has changed between the conventional system and the robot system.

Oesch said the first-lactation cows on both dairies begin the lactation milking about the same because of the training aspect in the robots. Once they get acclimated, they milk really well.

“Second lactation and greater, for whatever reason, are milking about 10 more pounds of milk at the robot dairy,” he said. “That is pretty much across the board.”

They are milking three times at the conventional farm and 2.8 milkings on average at the robot farm.

Weiss said the lactation curve of the cow changes once she’s in the robot dairy.

“Cows seem to peak sooner on the robots and they hold their production a little better than we would have in our older system,” she said.

Weiss Centennial Farm averages over three milkings per day in the robot, and they milked two times a day in the old system. This increase in milking allowed them to gain between 10 and 20 pounds of milk per cow.

Reproduction was the next topic addressed. Martin from Gingrich Meadows was the first one to share her experiences. She said her cows show visual heats much more than they did in the conventional system.

Her services per conception is down to 1.8, and she rarely uses any type of synchronization program. Before, she was using a great deal of synchronization.

Oesch talked about how the demeanor of the cows is totally different. Their change in behavior makes things like reproduction so much easier.

“It took about 48 hours, and everything changed,” he said. “Cows act like cows now. They don’t worry about being bothered all the time.”

Schaendorf told the group about how they use the DeLaval activity collars to detect heat. He gets hourly information on the cows’ activity status, whereas with the old system it only updated when they went into the parlor.

He said the heat detection is accurate and they have automatic sort gates, which will sort the in-heat cow off into a pen to be bred.

When asked about maintaining the robots, Martin said their GEA robots do not have much to take care of. She changes the inflation regularly and a few other parts that do wear out, but otherwise she does not have to worry about them very often.

Daily, all of the brands of robots have some maintenance. The robots need to be cleaned and checked over to make sure nothing has broken and that sand does not get into an area it should not be in.

All of the producers said bedding with sand can be a challenge, but if you are diligent and checking daily, it should not be an issue.

Three of the four farm managers said they would build their robotic dairies again given the chance. In the case of the Schaendorf Dairy, the robots were installed as more of a trial system. The family has had more success with the parlor and will likely be removing the robots this year.

All panelists agreed that robots have changed the way their cows behave, produce and how they manage them.

With diligence and some adaptation, any farm can become a successful robot farm given the chance and an open mind. Being able to talk with four producers who have different brands of robots and different sizes of farms made the session a favorite for anyone seriously looking to milking robots. PD

Messing-Kennedy is a dairy farmer and freelancer based in Bad Axe, Michigan. Visit her blog to follow updates about her family’s decision to install robots.

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Ashley Messing-Kennedy
Dairy Farmer
Bad Axe, Michigan

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