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Incorporating robotic milking into organic production

Robyn Nick Published on 09 September 2014

Ruegemers

When thinking of organic dairying, most farmers don’t often think of robotic milkers. However, producer experience shows that robotic milkers work well with organic dairying.

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“The cow has a choice about when she gets milked,” organic dairyman Pete Ruegemer of Villard, Minnesota, says. “Robots also work well with the grazing system that’s required by the organic regulations.”

Organic dairy farmers Chuck Deichmann (Belmont, New York), Tom Trinder (Fabius, New York) and Jen Breen (Orwell, Vermont) have also installed robotic milkers. These producers, along with Ruegemer, often field calls from curious producers and host field days on their farms to help educate other farmers about robotic milkers.

A key motivation for installing the robots for all four was more time for family and other priorities. “The robots give us freedom and flexibility,” Breen says. “Chores are no longer tied to the comings and goings of the cows or the daily milking schedule. I got to see my daughter’s first softball game of the season this year and didn’t have to rush through milking or any chores.”

Time savings was also important to Trinder and his herdswoman, Nancy Wood, who were both managing health issues. “I wanted to make life a little easier for all of us, and have a little more free time,” he says.

louis hall and jennifer breen

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Ruegemer’s daughter, Sara, and son, Jeremy, wanted to join the family business, and the combination of organic dairying with robotic milkers was the answer. “If someone had told me five years ago that we’d put robots in, I would’ve told them they were crazy,” Ruegemer says. “The kids wanted to farm, and they wanted some flexibility, so they financed the robots.”

The robots have reduced the overall labor costs on the farms as well. Trinder reports that there are only 2.1 people working with the 240 head on his farm. Deichmann echoes, “It’s a labor savings. You don’t have to have someone there milking your cows twice a day.”

The robotic milkers have turned out to be quite cow-friendly too, with producers seeing an increase in production and animal health. “Once I saw robotic milkers in operation, I realized they were very cow-friendly,” says Deichmann.

“The cows have complete freedom to do what they want to do, and to me, that tied into the whole organic world – it’s more natural for the cows to choose when they want to get milked.” Deichmann has seen less injuries and stress because the cows are no longer in a holding area while waiting to be milked.

Tom Trinder and Nancy Wood

Breen has also experienced the benefits of the milkers for her cows. “I was very impressed with how well the cows transitioned to the robots,” she says. “Within three days, 95 percent of my cows were going in voluntarily. Within three weeks, even the stubborn ones finally settled down, and now they go in on their own. We went from milking twice a day to milking 3.3 times a day very rapidly.”

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In fact, transitioning to a robotic milker can be easier on the cows than the farmers. “When you’re working with a computerized, mechanized, half-million-dollar investment, it’s important to recognize that you’re going to have issues,” Breen says.

“There is a learning curve, and you must be comfortable with at least basic computer knowledge and be willing to ride out the transition time for yourself. Our dealer has a saying of ‘three days, three weeks, three months.’

Chuck Deichmann

Three days for most of the cows to be comfortable with the robots, three weeks for the rest of the cows to get used to it and three months for the people to get used to it. I was amazed at how accurate that turned out to be. The first three days we didn’t get much sleep!”

For all of the producers, one of the bigger challenges in installing the robots was finding a way to get the cows to come in on their own from pasture. They found that providing the cows with a little grain in the barn is a great incentive for them to come in to be milked.

Deichmann also limits the paddock size so the cows eat up most of the pasture and know it’s time to go back and get a treat of grain from the robot. All of the producers also pick a time in the day to go get cows if they’re not in the barn and use the robots to alert them if cows aren’t coming back to the barn in a timely manner.

Here are several additional tips and tricks learned from these producers’ hard-won experience:

  • Visit other farmers who are using robots beforehand, and ask lots of questions.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Trinder says, “We wanted to make sure the cows got used to the gates and robots first. We’d make them go out toward the pastures and then come back to get them used to going through the gates.” He used the same approach for getting the cows used to the robots: the cows walked through the robots on the way to and from the feedbunk.
  • Put in selection gates. Ruegemer says, “We set the selection gates up so the cows go in one direction around the barn.”
  • Building a new barn is an opportune time to add robots.
  • Use reports – they’re important for effective management of the robots. Breen says that “the information is all there, and you’ve got to learn it in a hurry. You can coast along, with the robots milking the cows, but you’ve got to stay on top of the information.”
  • Consider transitioning to robots in the fall to help ensure cows are comfortable with the system before pasture season.
  • Be patient with yourself, your staff and your cows – there’s a learning curve that takes time. “The cows are adapting better than we have! You have to learn a lot in a hurry,” Trinder says.

In the end, all of the producers are happy with their robots and note that they’re continuing to learn more each day. “We all learn from each other. You’ve got to be willing to be patient, and to experiment with things. It’s just a new type of management, and you have to be willing to face that challenge,” Deichmann says. PD

See more of these organic farms by viewing a related slideshow .

PHOTOS
PHOTO ONE: The Ruegemers were the first U.S. organic dairy farmers to install DeLaval robotic milkers in 2011. They have shipped to Horizon Organic since 2006 and milk 135 cows. Courtesy photo.

PHOTO TWO : Louis Hall and Jennifer Breen installed two Lely robotic milkers in 2011. They milk 90 Holsteins and have shipped to Horizon since 2007.

PHOTO THREE : Tom Trinder installed two Lely robotic milkers in 2010. He and herdswoman Nancy Wood milk 123 Holsteins and have shipped to Horizon since 2009.

PHOTO FOUR : Chuck Deichmann installed his first Lely robotic milker in 2007 and a second in 2008. He was told by his dealer that he was the first organic dairy in the country to install robotic milkers. Deichmann milks 95 Holsteins and has shipped to Horizon since 2000. Photos courtesy of Keri Pickett Photography.

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