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Two producers share experience with robotic milking

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 30 March 2018

Following two industry presenters on topics relating to robotic milking, two Midwest dairy producers took the floor to talk about their first-hand experience in using automated milking systems.

Dan Wulfekuhle and Tom Pfaff each shared their stories and then took audience questions during the producer panel at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit, Dec. 6, 2017, in Madison, Wisconsin.



Wulfekuhle Dairy
Dan, Jane, Ryan and Tiffany Wulfekuhle
Delhi, Iowa

Dan and Jane Wulfekuhle started milking cows in a stanchion barn. As the herd grew, they retrofitted the stanchion barn into a double-8 parlor and hay shed into a freestall barn in 2005. Once these facilities began to crowd and they were frustrated in dealing with frozen teats in winter, Wulfekuhle said they started looking at robots and talking with their banker, who was skeptical because there weren’t any other farms in the area with robots.

When their son Ryan wanted to come back to the farm, the discussions about robots resurfaced. “I think having interest from the younger generation made the banker decide it was a good think to do,” Dan Wulfekuhle said.

In June 2014 they broke ground on a new facility with two robots. The freestall barn is more open with 52-inch sand-bedded stalls and rubber flooring for cow comfort. They also have an automated manure scraper and feed pusher.

For a more manageable startup, they trimmed herd numbers back to 110 cows and moved in January 2015.


The herd was averaging 78 to 82 pounds of milk per day in the old parlor with a “poor man’s TMR,” Wulfekuhle said. They were feeding corn silage, haylage and grain with free-choice long-stem hay. Now, he credited a real TMR for a significant boost in milk production to 92 to 100 pounds of milk per cow per day. They feed a pellet in the robot at a rate of 6 pounds at freshening and up to 14 pounds based on production.

Wulfekuhle also attributed cow comfort and more frequent feed pushups for the production increase and only noted about 2 to 5 pounds of it to be from increased milking with the robots.

One downfall to the higher production was difficulty in drying cows off as they were still milking 80 pounds a day. He ended up trimming back the amount of pellets fed in late lactation. This has reduced the number of visits by these animals and opens up box time for fresh cows.

After the first month in the new facility, their fetch cows were down to eight. That number decreased to two by three months after startup, and at times they don’t have any fetch cows in their 125-cow herd. Wulfekuhle said he tries to stay out of the barn as much as possible to let the cows do their own thing. He also noted his cows are much calmer when it comes to human interaction.

He said maintenance costs are $7,500 per robot per year. Twice a day they recalibrate the robots and wash everything down. They also check the auto-detach ropes, and since they have sand bedding, they find these need to be cut and re-tied every seven to 10 days. Every 30,000 milkings (about 3.5 times per year), a scheduled maintenance needs to be done.

Being on call 24/7 can be a pain, he said, but after the first eight months, he hasn’t received many calls. Jane Wulfekuhle said since they have no additional labor on the farm, they can’t always do things as an entire family because someone who knows how to fix the robots needs to be close to the farm.


However, they do like being able to set their own hours and not being tied down to milking two or three times a day. They can focus on fieldwork and take care of barn chores later if needed.

Because of conductivity reports from the robots, they have switched to selected dry cow therapy instead of blanket dry-off treatments.

Dan Wulfekuhle said they struggle with a few cows with crisscrossed teats in the robots, but it’s not a big problem. If they are in late lactation, he will set milking permissions to only twice a day, which allows the udder to open up more.

A couple of things Wulfekuhle said he would do differently is make the calving area on the end of the barn a little bigger and position the robots in the same direction so all cows would be trained to be milked on the same side.

Pfaff’s Prairie Dairy
Tom Pfaff
Melrose, Wisconsin

When Tom Pfaff returned home to farm with his father, they purchased a neighboring farm and milked cows in two locations. It required a lot of hired help, and when a storm blew the roof off of a barn in 1996, they moved all of the cows back to the home farm where they switched groups in the stanchion barn.

Wanting to do something different, Pfaff started looking at parlors and robots. He wasn’t impressed with the robots until he visited a farm that had only been in the new system for two weeks and the owner felt comfortable enough to leave the herdsman in charge while he went on vacation.

So in 2009, Pfaff planned and built a new facility with seven robots. In 2016, he added two more robots and opened up the pens so cows have access to four robots at once.

In the robotic setting, cows divvy up their days differently compared with a parlor, where all cows are milked at the same time, eat at the same time and lie down at the same time. With the robot, cows split into thirds with these activities. Pfaff said he thought he could squeeze more income out of the barn by adding the extra robots and another 120 cows on the same footprint. “Milk per robot has dropped a little bit, but we’re still producing more milk a day from the same barn,” he said.

He has five employees to help with the robots and cows. With someone in the barn most of the day, he said it isn’t a big issue having a fetch cow. As a cow gets later in lactation with closer teats, they will switch her to 2X-milking and will fetch her morning and night to assist with attachment.

At the far end of the barn, he has a pre-fresh and calving pen. At three weeks prior to calving, the animals come to this barn. After calving, they are dispersed into one of the pens, where they will stay until dry off.

His herd is averaging 88 pounds of milk per cow per day, with a 3.8 fat and 3.2 protein. Pfaff attributed the increase in production from the stanchion barn to the ration and cow comfort. “Cow comfort can’t be said enough; it’s the key to a happy cow. Those cows are going to last longer in this type of an environment. We have one cow close to 12 lactations,” he said.

In addition, his employees enjoy working in this environment and he has a very low turnover rate.

On the downside, Pfaff said maintenance costs are high especially now that the warranty is off. He was at $11,000 per robot for the first 11 months of 2017. They do the majority of the work themselves, unless it is a computer issue. He also decided to switch to chains instead of ropes because of having to change them often with sand bedding.

Having more than one robot per pen helps if a robot is down for maintenance, as it gives the cows other options to use. The downside to the larger pens is trying to fetch cows. Pfaff said he is looking forward to using GPS on his phone to locate cows. He also said having the robots positioned along the outside of the barn is more difficult for maintenance, and if he were to build a new barn, he would consider a centralized layout for this reason.

Other changes he would make would be not installing in-floor heat around the robot as the barn doesn’t get cold enough for the area to freeze. Pfaff would also add a pen for heifers and fresh cows. “We’re fetching cows quite regularly,” he said. “We try to fetch heifers once every eight hours the first few days.” Once they are going through 2.5 times per day, they are no longer on the fetch list.

To save on feed costs, he has been feeding corn gluten pellets in the robot the past few years. Cows receive 5 pounds of pellets at freshening up to 16 pounds for the highest producers. Fines have to be cleaned from the bowls once in awhile, but the cost savings is worth it, he said.

Pfaff credited his employees for the success of the system. “The barn is only as good as people that work in it,” he said. Since they have more calvings with a higher herd number, they have someone there until 1 a.m. and the next shift starts at 4:30 a.m. His herdswoman is committed to her job. “I enjoy working with an employee that makes it their own,” he said.

Overall, milking with robots is better than his previous scenario in switching cows in a stanchion barn. “I never knew it would be so easy to handle cows in a freestall environment,” Pfaff said. “It’s just a pleasure.”  end mark

Karen Lee
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