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Growing from a humble beginning: Minglewood Inc. capitalizes on technology

Adriana Toste for Progressive Dairy Published on 29 December 2020

More than 100 years ago, Minglewood Inc. began as a dairy operation with only six cows, a small tiestall barn and a lot of hope. Their current operation is a far cry from their humble beginning in 1894. Today, owners Kevin and Roxann Solum and their family milk 1,200 Holstein cows, manage eight DeLaval robotic milking systems and farm 2,800 acres of crops near Deer Park, Wisconsin.

Running a multigenerational farm is no small task, especially after experiencing unexpected circumstances and sudden rapid growth, says Kristin Quist, fifth generation farmer of Minglewood Inc. “In 1993, we had a barn fire that destroyed our tiestall barn,” she says. “Out of the 70 cows that were milking, only 19 survived the fire.”

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The fire was an immense tragedy for Minglewood Inc., but it ultimately led to opportunities of rebuilding and revolutionizing their operation, she says. Following the fire, the Solum family built a double-nine parallel milking parlor and freestall barn equipped to milk and house 300 cows. From there, they grew steadily and expanded their herd to 800 cows until 2018.

As production increased, their family began considering options to fit the needs of their growing operation. They sought advice from their financial consultant, who strongly suggested the implementation of robots. “He really encouraged us to look into robots because the numbers that he was seeing on the robot herds, especially on cull rate and increased milk production, he thought were really encouraging,” Quist says.

After traveling to multiple dairies across the U.S. to view different robotic milking systems and designs, their family decided to pull the pin and install the classic DeLaval model in November 2018. They worked closely with the milking equipment company to map out their expectations of a barn design. The family placed emphasis on maximizing their production, while also using their existing facilities, says Daniel Vander Heiden, robotic sales specialist at DeLaval. “It was a lot of trial and error and needing to move things around before we settled on the plan we finally settled on,” Vander Heiden says.

To accommodate their growing herd and prepare for the future, the Solums knew they were going to need multiple automated milking units. “First, we looked at putting four robots in and were like, ‘Well, if we’re going to do four, we’re going to do eight,’” Quist says.

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Two years later, the family still utilizes their double-nine parallel milking parlor in addition to the eight robots. Initially, it was used as a financial relief, but now it is used because some cows don’t acclimate well to the technology, Quist says. The Solums start each cow in the parlor for about a week and then score them on how well they will adapt to the robot based on their udder conformation and teat placement, Quist says. Their primary concerns are teat length, how close each teat is to one another and the tilt of the udder, says Noah Threlkeld, herdsman at Minglewood Inc. Once calculated, they determine which cows will move to the barn with the robots and which cows will move to the freestyle barns to be milked in the parlor.

“It has been a great reward, because there’s been cows that don’t quite work in the robots for various reasons, whether it be teat placement, their personality, attitude, whatever,” Quist says. “When those cows don’t work in the robots, they can just go back to the parlor, and they’re still a profitable animal for us.” Forty percent of Minglewood Inc.’s herd is milked using the robots, while the remaining 60% is milked in the traditional parlor.

The Solums have seen definite positives in their new facility, Quist says. She says a huge benefit of the automated barn has been a decrease in cull rate by 5% and increased cow comfort, which has resulted in higher milk yields. “We went from a traditional, conventional freestall barn that was naturally ventilated to our power-ventilated barn with bigger stalls and just a more comfortable atmosphere for them,” Quist says.

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Because the robot is accessible at all times, the number of employees needed has decreased, she says. “We added roughly 300 to 350 cows to our herd, and we only had to add one person to our staff to milk those additional cows,” Quist says. This hands-off approach has allowed the cows to decide their own schedule and has affected cow behavior, Threlkeld says. “The biggest thing that I see as a herdsman in the difference in the two barns is cow behavior,” he adds. “It is interesting that you’ll see a lot more of the dynamics of the herd.” While conforming to a new technology and management style has been a huge learning curve, the reward has been well worth it, especially since labor is becoming harder and more expensive to find, Quist says.

Their facility is ready for more robots, and they plan to eventually install an additional eight, as time permits, Quist says. “When we designed the barn for Minglewood, it was designed with 16 robots in mind,” Vander Heiden says. With this next set, they plan to install the newest DeLaval model, VMS V300, with hopes of milking more cows that haven’t worked well with the classic robot, Quist says. In the classic model, the teats are detected using a camera and laser, whereas the new model uses the camera to pixelate the teats, making it much easier for the robot to find each quarter, Vander Heiden says. “Traditionally, when we started robot barns, we probably had 5% of cows that were misfits that wouldn’t really work or attach well with a classic facility like theirs,” he says. “In contrast, now with the V300, it’s close to 1%.”

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Until they’re ready for that next step, the Solums look forward to continuing to learn and letting the cows proceed at their own pace, Quist says. “We're almost two years in and we're still learning,” she says. “Of course, we learn every day.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Minglewood Inc. is owned and operated by the Solum Family; Kevin and Roxann Solum, son, Ryan, and son-in-law and daughter, Jacob and Kristin Quist.

PHOTO 2: At Minglewood Inc., each pen holds 120 cows, so roughly 60 cows go through each robot daily.

PHOTO 3: Their robot barn is power-ventilated, making it a calm, cool and comfortable environment for their cows. Photos by Brittany Olson.

Adriana Toste is a student at Oklahoma State University.

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