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Hemdale Farms finds success with robots despite challenges

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 31 March 2015

Hemdale Farms in Seneca Castle, New York, installed its first automatic milking units in 2007. Two years later, the parlor ceased operation, and since then the number of robots has steadily increased.

Pete Maslyn, who has been the dairy manager at Hemdale Farms and Greenhouses for the past seven years, spoke of the farm’s automated milking procedures and challenges earlier this year at the Dairy Strong Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. He is part of a seven-person management team, which includes Dale Hemminger, president and owner of the farm, and Hemminger’s son, Clayton.

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The farm’s milking parlor was originally built in 1958. Although it had been retrofitted several times, the cows still had to walk a long way to be milked, and the holding area was an area for heat stress.

It was decided a new barn would be built separate from the existing facilities to house 220 cows and four robots.

“We thought we’d give it a year or two and see how we liked it, but to be honest, it was a little bit of an experiment,” Maslyn said. “The robots came in on a trailer, and we figured they could go out on a trailer. If we didn’t like them we would have just added on to that robot barn and put a parlor in.”

Two years later, they built another barn with four more robots next to the first robot barn. In the summer of 2009, the milking parlor was completely shut down, and the farm has been milking solely with robots ever since, Maslyn said.

Four more robots were put in the farm’s existing six-row barn, and the original milk house was large enough to hold an additional robot.

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Last year, another robot barn was built, bringing the farm’s total to 17 automatic milking systems for 1,000 cows.

Hemdale Farms plans to add more robots in the near future. A new barn will be completed this summer. Even though it has the capacity for four robots, initially it will house just two robots with extra space for heifer overflow.

The barns built specifically for robots are two rows of head-to-head stalls with an outside feed alley. Maslyn said they usually run 110 to 120 cows per group. With only 60 headlocks per pen, he admitted they are pushing their limits on feedbunk space. “I wouldn’t want to do it that way in a parlor when cows are more likely to all eat at once,” he said.

As far as grouping strategies, the farm has one fresh cow group, a first-lactation pen, five mature cow pens sorted by stall size and a designated hospital pen.

Maslyn said he likes that cows are a lot closer to their natural state with robots, more than with any other milking system.

“Robots bring cow comfort to a new level,” he said. For example, cows can have a milking schedule independent of others in the herd. Fresh cows can be milked four to six times per day, while tail-enders can go 12 to 14 hours between milkings.

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The farm’s SCC has dropped from 380,000 in the parlor to 120,000 with robots over the past three years. Maslyn attributed this to management changes based upon the information the robots were able to provide.

In addition, the herd’s productive life span is increasing. “There are cows in their eighth lactation we’re breeding back that I don’t think we would have if we were still in the parlor,” he said.

As the year began, cows at Hemdale Farms were producing 84 pounds of milk per cow per day. Fat was at 3.8 and protein at 3.01. Maslyn mentioned the farm had recently switched to feeding shredlage, which may have contributed to a milkfat number greater than what it typically sees.

The herd averaged 165 days in milk with a 12.9 calving interval. It achieved pregnancy rates from 30 to 32 percent, but overcrowding in advance of expansion lowered that to 26 percent. The farm’s pregnancy rate has been increasing again with a current rate of 28 percent.

Without stress, Maslyn said, the cows are showing better heats. The farm has activity and rumination monitors and also uses a synchronization program.

The robots have allowed the farm to reduce the dairy’s labor needs by 40 percent while at the same time increasing the herd by 300 cows.

Maslyn’s staff includes a herdsman who is in charge of the vaccination program, repro shots and the mastitis list, another who monitors the fresh and sick cows, and a night person who takes care of robot maintenance. The rest of his crew is in charge of a barn or a set of robots, and they clean stalls, wash robots and find fetch cows.

Each day, Maslyn and members of his dairy team review the following data: milkings per day, milk per cow per day, number of visits, number of refusals, failure to attach, rumination, heat report, mastitis report, fresh cow report and fetch cow list.

Maslyn will spend the first hour to an hour-and-a-half of his day reviewing reports. He’ll skim through the 10-page robot indication report, which tells what each robot has done in the past 24 hours. He said he knows in the first 10 minutes if it will be a good day or a bad day.

While robots have made life on the farm easier, Maslyn acknowledged there are some challenges.

Daily routines are harder to monitor with robots compared to a parlor with rigid routines. However, Maslyn said he likes the flexibility of not having the cows on a schedule. “With fetch cows, you don’t want the guys looking at that list at the same time each day because then we condition the cows to expect us to come get them at the same time,” he said.

Members of the farm team had to learn on the fly to diagnose and fix the robots themselves, which he said was a pretty steep learning curve. They now have a better understanding of how to fix the equipment, and they keep an inventory of parts on the farm.

Maslyn said an automatic milking system works well with incremental growth, but they did experience challenges with overcrowding prior to entering a new robot barn.

Finding the right place for footbaths has been a challenge in terms of barn design. The farm has found placing footbaths at the robot exits works well.

Despite the challenges, automatic milking is the preferred way to milk cows at Hemdale Farms, as it seems more robots are coming in versus leaving on trailers. PD

karen lee

Karen Lee
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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