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Why we chose robots: Lehi Creek Farm

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2017
Lehi Creek Farm barn

Eighteen months into a new facility with a robotic milking system, Lehi Creek Farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania, is happy with their decision to reduce labor and improve cow comfort by investing in technology that will take the family dairy farm into the future.

The Stutzman family reports a very positive transition for the cows as well as the people involved with the dairy. Naomi Stutzman, along with her two sons, Michael and Matthew, and Matthew’s wife, Stephanie, are no longer milking and caring for cattle in facilities that were well past their prime.

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Both the heifer barn and cow barns on the farm were outdated and labor-intensive. Manure was scraped by hand. Poor ventilation, cracked trusses, barns too close together and the small milking parlor made every chore more difficult.

In 2005, the family was able to replace the antiquated heifer barn with a new slotted floor facility, easing some of the drudgery. Realizing repairs to the existing freestall barn housing the milking herd would be too costly, the family began planning for a new barn.

As part of the design process, the family visited numerous other dairy farmers in the region. Robots weren’t on the radar as they compared various freestall barn and parlor options.

“It was very helpful to visit them,” Naomi says of other dairy farms, recommending that others don’t skip this step.

It was a visit to Penn State’s Ag Progress Days, however, that convinced the family robots were going to be the correct choice and that their milking parlor would be a thing of the past. The family chose a two-box robotic milking system, which has one arm serving two milking boxes and milks up to 120 cows per day.

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With some assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the family was able to obtain an Environmental Quality Incentives Program grant to put in a stream-bed crossing for the cows. They opted to enhance their manure storage capacity, as the earthen lagoon, built in 1972, was functioning but outdated and too small moving forward.

Placing the land into farmland preservation also made a new freestall barn, designed for the robotic milking system, feasible.

The family continued to milk in the parlor, with the herd pastured, as the barns were demolished and the new facility built. This kept the milk – and income – flowing, further easing the transition.

The Stutzmans are now planning to increase their milking herd size to 100, up from 80 currently but below the maximum capacity of the robot and their new three-row freestall facility, which has a maximum capacity of about 110 cows. Stalls are bedded with rubber mats and straw.

The cows are milking an average of 2.7 times per day with the robot, and productivity has increased. It was an easy adjustment, although there was a learning curve, and neither cows nor humans have any complaints.

Since converting to robots, what has changed about the way you manage your dairy? What has not changed?

Stutzmans' old milking facility, cows were herded in twice a day to be milked

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The biggest change, family members agree, is in the amount of data they have available to monitor the herd. Although select data from the robots is utilized daily, it hasn’t replaced good old-fashioned observation.

“We now use the information the robot provides to help manage our cows better,” Matt Stutzman says, acting as family spokesperson. “Things we use most are their daily milk yields, conductivity and activity monitoring for heats. We still walk the barn and use our own observations to verify the robot information and observe cow health.”

The robots help with other aspects of farm management. Stephanie adds, “It definitely helps us get our other work done.”

What factors went into your decisions of how to design your barn?

Integrating some of the old facilities into the new barn layout was a necessity. And because they had so much experience with a design that didn’t work, knowing what improvements were needed was obvious.

“Some of the factors were ventilation, cow comfort, ease of cow movement and manure handling. We also had to design around the stone bank barn, which we wanted to use for office space, milk house, utility room and other storage. Some other factors were location of dry cows, maternity and sick cow pens.”

What is your favorite feature of the new facility?

Favorite feature of the robots is that their cows are much calmer

Not all members of the family agree on a single favorite feature, but there is a consensus that the robots themselves, the alley scraper and the cow brush top the list.

The family also loves that the herd is much calmer now that they aren’t being chased around to get to the milking parlor.

If you could go back and rebuild knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

Overall, “at this point, we don’t really have anything we would do differently,” Matt says.

The robotic milkers give a large amount of data

While they don’t have any real regrets, there are a few things that could be improved, such as enhancing the ventilation system and adding a footbath. Rubber flooring in the alley may or may not have been worth the cost, although the cows prefer it to concrete. The rubber can get icy in the winter, though, and a few cows have slipped.

What are three points of advice you would give to someone considering robots for their dairy?

“Do a lot of research of the different robot companies and know the different features they provide,” Matt advises. “Know the extra costs that will be involved in a robotic system, such as feed cost and maintenance. Daily observation, daily involvement and daily maintenance are very important in assuring everything keeps working properly 24-7.”

The family hasn’t experienced any herd health concerns with the switch to robotic milking. But they do have cows that are much less stressed than they were in the old facilities. Previously, the cows would get up whenever someone walked into the barn, thinking it was time to be milked. Now, the cows remain resting, feeding or milking – at will – and are noticeably calmer.

There is not as much stress in the herd since the robotic milking facility was built, the family agrees. There isn’t as much stress on the family, either.  end mark

PHOTO 1: The family wanted the new barn design to incorporate the stone bank barn, where they planned to set up office space, the milk house, utility room and other storage. 

PHOTO 2: In the Stutzmans’ old milking facility, cows were herded in twice each day to be milked in a small eight-stall parlor. 

PHOTO 3: The family’s favorite result of the switch to robots is that their cows are much calmer than they were in the old facilities. 

PHOTO 4: The biggest change for the Stutzmans since switching to robots is in the amount of data they have available to monitor the herd. Photos courtesy of Lehi Creek Farm.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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