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Craig Finke to operate most automated dairy in the U.S.

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 06 February 2014

Craig Finke

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This article was #4 of the Top 25 most well-read articles on www.progressivedairy.com in 2014. It was published in the Feb. 7, 2014 print issue.

It all began with the need for a new manure-handling system. One thing led to another, and soon Craig Finke was building the most automated dairy in the U.S. A local dealership introduced him to a new automated feeding system in use in Europe.

A trip overseas showed Finke how well automated feeding complemented automated milking. By the time construction started, Finke planned to build a new freestall barn equipped with robotic milking units and the automatic feeding system. His old milking parlor would be converted to a calf barn with an automatic calf feeder.

We asked Finke,
Q. How has the automation changed the way you dairy?

The most important difference is my ability to be more proactive rather than reactive. There is a plethora of information that can be gleaned from the Galaxy [automatic milking system] software. It can tell me that a potential problem exists with a cow before I am able to see it. The consistency of the milking routine is also much improved. The automatic feeding system has enhanced my ability to deliver a consistent ration to the cows day after day.

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The PLC-based system that operates the rest of the building’s functions (lights, fans, curtains, flush system, garage doors, etc.) and the camera system allows me to respond to changing weather, low feed levels in the bunkers and other situations with a click of the mouse or smartphone without having to be present on the farm. Most importantly, it has allowed me to be more flexible with my time. There aren’t any more “have to” times. I don’t have to be at the farm at any specific time of the day anymore.
—Craig Finke, Dairy producer, Nashville, Illinois

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When Craig Finke needed to upgrade his 100-cow dairy near Nashville, Illinois, 50 miles east of St. Louis, he didn’t have his sights set on automation.

“It all started with a need for a new manure system and it grew from there,” Finke says.

His will soon be the most automated dairy in the U.S., using robots to milk cows, feed cows and feed calves.

“It was now or never,” he adds.

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The fourth generation on the farm, Finke was milking 90 to 100 cows in a double-six parlor with an 80-stall freestall barn. The cows were being fed with two silos and a belt conveyor.

The dairy coincides with a 1,200-acre cropping operation. He grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. The crop farm supplies most of the feed for the dairy. Some additional hay is purchased because the land is not well suited for growing that crop.

As Finke mentioned, the project stemmed from a need to install a new manure-handling system. He opted to install a flush system, which launched the idea for a new freestall barn and feeding system.

He looked to the dealership his family farm has worked with for the past 35 to 40 years for assistance, and they introduced him to a new automated feeding system in use in Europe.

On a trip to Holland to research the feeding system, Finke saw how well the automated feeding worked with an automatic milking system.

“They complemented each other very well,” he says.

Even though the automatic milking system was an afterthought, once he had the idea, Finke spent a fair amount of time researching this technology.

“I looked at all of the systems and decided I liked the one-arm, two-box system the best,” he says. “It stuck out to me more than the rest of them.”

The new systems started up in mid-November. First, Finke introduced the cows to the new barn and started up the feeding system. He also walked the cows through the automatic milking system, without milking them, simply to get them used to the environment. A couple of days later, the automatic milking system was started and has continued to milk the herd ever since.

Just before Thanksgiving, the area was struck by a devastating tornado. Finke was fortunate to not sustain any damage, but other farmers in the area were not as lucky.

With his old parlor and freestall barn standing empty, Finke offered to house two-thirds of a neighbor’s herd while he rebuilds the buildings he lost in the tornado.

“It was pretty lucky that we had just moved to the new building. There weren’t a lot of abandoned dairies in the area,” Finke says.

His plan to convert the old parlor into a calf barn with an automated calf feeder is now on hold until his neighbor’s construction project is complete.

The silver lining is that it allows him to fully focus on the transition of his milking herd. Everyone who has started a robotic milking operation will admit it is not easy in the beginning, and it is no different for Finke.

While still working through a few issues, Finke says, “We’re just getting to the point where we can start seeing some of the benefits.”

Overall, he’s seen a 30 to 35 percent uptick in milk production, which he attributes to the feeding system, cows being milked around the clock and enhanced cow comfort in the new facility.

“The cows have adjusted very well,” he says.

In the new barn he installed flexible stalls, and the cows are no longer getting bruised or caught in the stalls like before.

In the new barn he installed flexible stalls

“The hardest part is getting the cows up because they are so comfortable,” Finke adds. “They’ve calmed down so much.”

In addition, he installed a radio system in the barn to broadcast relaxing music for the cows.

From a walkway 12 feet in the air that runs from the office down the length of the barn, Finke is able to do a walk-through without disturbing the animals. “It is fun to just watch them and see how relaxed the cows are,” he says.

In terms of the feeding system, Finke says he likes that he can load the bunkers in his feed kitchen and walk away for a few days.

Cattle are pictured here, eating as the feeding system moves along the cables above after retrieving ingredients from bays in the “kitchen” and mixing a TMR

The only limitation to how many cows it can feed is time. Right now, Finke has the system set up to feed a consistent ration to his milk cows six times a day, dry cows and heifers three times and weaned calves twice a day. “It has a lot more time in a day to feed,” he notes.

In the future, Finke plans to convert another shed to house four groups of heifers. He’ll add a flush system there too, as well as utilize the robot for feeding.

Overall, Finke says, “This project is total technology integration because I needed to put my emphasis on managing the cows instead of physically taking care of the cows.”

He is currently milking 115 cows and can add another five or 10 cows before maxing out the new set-up.

Finke estimates that by early February the increased labor needs of start-up should subside. He has had someone at the dairy around the clock and plans to soon cut out the night shift.

Once everything is fully up to speed, he anticipates labor savings for the farm. Finke has operated the farm with the assistance of one full-time employee and two part-time employees. With the help of the automation, he plans to cut labor needs down to one full-time person, which will result in a savings of $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

Even though it all started with a need for a new manure system, which by the way is working quite well, it will be the automation that helps carry this farm from one generation to the next. First, by enabling Finke to devote his time to help raise the fifth generation.

His ultimate goal is to free up more of his time and to have a more flexible schedule. Married with two small children, Finke says, “Spending more time with my family is my primary goal.” PD

PHOTOS
TOP: In late July, Craig Finke was all smiles as his new fully automated dairy facility was taking shape at Finke Farms near Nashville, Illinois, particularly as workers unveiled the new automatic milking system (in the background) that had been delivered and set.

MIDDLE: The new barn with flexible stalls has increased cow comfort, as viewed from the catwalk built for easy observation.

BOTTOM: Not only are cows robotically milked at Finke Farms, they are also fed automatically. Cattle are pictured here, eating as the feeding system moves along the cables above after retrieving ingredients from bays in the “kitchen” and mixing a TMR. Photos courtesy of Sherry Bunting and Brad Biehl.

Karen Lee

Karen Lee
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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