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Martins bed robotically with sand

Sherry Bunting for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 December 2017
The Martin family

What started as an idea for three brothers to combine their dairy herds and build a new facility has led to one of the most automated precision dairies in the country, with robotic milking, cow monitoring, sand-bedded flush system, flexible stalls and a robot that delivers sand bedding to the freestalls.

In November, Micah, Japheth and Clement Martin, with their wives Laura, Jillian and Charity, hosted an open house at their state-of-the-art Milky Way Dairy and new dealership, MJC Precision Solutions, near New Paris, Indiana.

An estimated 800 people attended, judging by the number of meals and ice cream served during the four-hour event that attracted dairy farm families from Indiana, as well as Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and as far west as Iowa.

See more of the robotic facility in this slideshow.

The Martin brothers chose technology from a Pennsylvania-based company that makes dealer-service-level training and support available to dairy farmers who want to maintain their own equipment.

After training and working with the technology, the brothers saw “the opportunity to not only keep up on our own equipment, but that we could also be of service to our neighbors,” Clement says.

While transitions to robotic management take time for the dairymen and the cows, the brothers say that every three months, they see their own management abilities increase and the cows respond.

“A year into this, we are seeing how robotic dairying is supposed to work,” Micah says. “We are seeing faster milking and more milk, and as the technology improves, we have access to it.”

Designed for 300 cows, the facility became operational 15 months ago. Currently, 250 cows are milking voluntarily 2.7 times per day, producing 84.5 pounds per cow per day with an average somatic cell count of 145,000.

“There were too many of us at home on Mom and Dad’s farm,” says Micah of the 250-cow dairy his parents and younger siblings operate. “We rented an old setup with our cows while looking into what we wanted to build.”

Partway through that process, they met AMS-Galaxy-USA (AMSG) president Brad Biehl.

“We were looking extensively at the robotic technology available, but once we met Brad, we knew what we wanted to do,” Micah says.

In 2015, the brothers traveled to the company’s technical center in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for training.

“There weren’t any dealerships in our area, but once we did the training, we knew we could do the maintenance ourselves,” says Micah, adding that this was also attractive from a cost-of-ownership standpoint.

Biehl, a fourth-generation Pennsylvania dairy farmer with an engineer’s background, gave the Martin brothers the confidence to “be our own dealer,” as they describe it. That was attractive, and they began to realize that with the three of them operating an automated dairy together, they were in a position to extend this relationship for other dairy producers who want service and support.

“We liked that this is a small company and if you have a problem, you can go right to the owner,” Micah says. “We also liked that we have shared values, because we are all dairy farmers, including the owner of AMSG, so we can relate to each other on that level.”

The classes prepared them for more than just repairing and maintaining a robot. “We talked about cows and what it takes to be successful in managing a robotic facility,” Clement says.

Biehl points out that “nurturing is a process. We want to give people information, and we are also looking for compatible relationships with dairy producers utilizing precision technologies.”

The brothers admit they were a little apprehensive at first, but after over a year of being in operation, Micah says, “We have not had an issue that could not be solved over the phone.”

With today’s technologies of FaceTime and smartphones, anyone at the technical center in Pennsylvania can be “the genius behind the farmer’s hands,” Biehl explains.

The Martins chose a four-row freestall barn because that is what their father built eight years ago, and they liked that type of setup. AMSG helped them with the design for incorporating the robotic milking and robotic bedding.

“We love how the cow flow works,” Micah says, explaining the one-way finger gates that are “set up so that one guy can take care of the fetch cows with one pass without having to open and shut gates.”

Astor sand bedding robot

The facility is designed with stalls that are 17 feet head-to-head and 45 inches wide. The Astor bedding robot travels overhead and conveys sand from either side to do each set of head-to-head stalls in one pass.

This removes the need for stall grooming. It adds sand to the fronts of the stalls multiple times throughout the day, and the cows work it back through the beds naturally.

With flexible comfort stalls, the stall widths are reduced compared with rigid stalls, and this helps manure stay out of the stalls when cows exit. These flexible freestalls with rubber ends include a flexible neckrail that lifts up as a cow lunges to stand up.

“The biggest thing for keeping manure out of the back of the stalls is keeping sand in the front. The bedding robot takes care of that for us,” Japheth explains. “We do make a round every morning and evening to see if we need to scrape any stalls, but we don’t have to add bedding.”

The Martins report that they are using approximately 8 to 9 cubic meters of sand a day. “The bedding robot holds 0.57 cubic meters, and we are running 14 to 15 routes per day throughout the facility,” says Japheth, adding that while he doesn’t know the amount of sand they were using before the bedding robot was installed, they are definitely using more sand now.

“Part of the reason we are using more sand now is that we would wait until after the stalls needed sand to add sand before we had the bedding robot,” he explains. “Now, the robot puts a little sand in each day to maintain what is there. We feel that our stalls are always properly filled now, and this has helped immensely in keeping our stalls free of manure.”

The proof is in the herd’s somatic cell count. “Within the first month, our SCC dropped to an average of 145,000, and it continues to go down,” Japheth says. “Since we are recycling our sand and getting better quality milk, it is not a big deal for us to be using a little more bedding, and in fact, it has been better for the cows.”

The bedding robot does have the capability to message them when there’s a problem, just like the milking robot does, but this is a feature the Martins have not yet hooked up.

Japheth says that the biggest thing with implementing the bedding robot was working on designing a hopper and conveyor to handle the sand. “We worked with a local welder to implement our designs. So we had a few hiccups in that process and a little experimenting to get it perfected, but now we have a bedding robot equipped to handle sand and a system that is now available to other dairies bedding with sand,” he reports.

Apart from modifying the hopper and conveyor, he says there were few challenges once they figured out how many routes to run to keep the fronts of the stalls maintained. This has been the key to cows loving their stalls and for keeping manure out of the back of the stalls.

“The bedding robot is programmed to run three times a day on the inside aisles because they get used a little more often, and two times a day on the outside aisles,” Japheth says. “This has worked well to keep the stalls full of sand without grooming.”

The freestall barn is equipped with a flush system and gravity flow sand lane to non-mechanically separate the sand from the flush water for the Martins to scoop, pile for drying and reuse. The stalls are deep-bedded, and the bedding robot makes sure they stay that way.

The brothers say they work well together managing their combined dairy. While Japheth does all the feeding every day, they are each involved in all aspects of the business.

The barn has three robot rooms. They selected the Astrea 20.20 two-box robot, which means that each robotic arm can milk up to 120 cows. Two of the robot rooms have one robot with two boxes and the third room has a robot with a single box to keep their herd size to 300 cows.

The monitoring system uses leg bands and gives individual and group reports for activity, eating and lying time. The dashboard system is user-friendly, giving the information they need at both the herd level and individually.

The brothers have seen their milk production improve when compared with the much older parlor and freestall setup. They once had an outdoor feeding area, but now everything is under roof, including a maternity area. Dry cows are currently kept at the old barn a mile away and are moved to the robot barn pre-calving.

“What’s nice about automation is that we can spend a lot of time out here or a little. If we need to be done in 30 minutes, we can. Without automation, that would be impossible,” Micah says. “We can’t do that every day, and the next day we may be in here a little longer, but we have the flexibility to do our cow management instead of being tied to a milking schedule.”  end mark

Sherry Bunting is a freelance writer from East Earl, Pennsylvania. 

PHOTO 1: Pictured in one of the three robot rooms at Milky Way Dairy are the Martin brothers and their families. In the back are (left to right) Charity and Clement, and in the front are (left to right) Lilly, 3, Japheth, Azure, 5, Laura, Kadence, 5, and Micah. Not pictured are Micah’s oldest daughter, Britney, 8, and youngest daughter, Paige, 7. Photo provided by the Martin family. 

PHOTO 2: The key to keeping manure out of the back of the stalls is to keep plenty of sand in the front of the stalls. That’s the Astor bedding robot’s job two to three times a day. The sand is recycled from the gravity flow flush system, and the bedding robot’s bedding hopper received modifications by a local welding company, with input from the Martin brothers. They love how the whole deal works, and now these adaptations will be offered to producers nationwide. Photo by Sherry Bunting.

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