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Robotic milkers and feed system help sons return to family farm

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 13 November 2017
Hanson family

Just about all dairy producers now know someone with robotics, but at Good-Vue Farms in Goodride, Minnesota, the Hanson family not only has robotic milkers – a robot mixes the herd’s feed as well.

Linda Hanson and her husband, Mike, have three sons – David, 26, Matthew, 24, and Steven, 21. The family milks about 120 registered Ayrshires and Holsteins, and farms about 2,700 acres. Matthew and Linda handle the dairy herd, while Mike focuses on the crops in season and fills the feed kitchen. Steven is a jack-of-all-trades; wherever he is needed to be, he will do that job. David is married and lives in southern Minnesota, working on his in-laws’ robotic dairy.

Linda says they decided to go with robots so their sons could come back to the farm. They couldn’t increase their acreage without competing for land, so they decided to make it an operation that could handle one, two or three of their sons returning to the farm.

Expanding the herd to accommodate their sons joining the operation was not practical with the old tiestall facility. “If we wanted to get bigger but still depend on family labor, we needed to build new but be efficient,” she says. “Once that decision was made, the leap to doing it with robots was easy. The decision to include the robotic feeding system came later but also complemented our goals of family labor, time-saving and high-quality, efficient feeding.”

They built their new facility and moved in during the fall of 2016. After one year of milking with two robots and having the cows in new housing, the herd average has climbed from 18,000 to 22,000 pounds.

“As managers we have now begun to focus more on the data that we receive from the robots and utilize that as a way to better manage our cows. We watch for trends, using the data to determine any sickness or problems,” Matt says. “We continue to spend a fair amount of time walking among the cows.”

Their pregnancy rate is about 30 percent. Their somatic cell count is 150,000, up slightly from their old facility.

The new 116-by-276-foot barn includes the 40-by-76-foot “feed kitchen” as well as a heated shop. There are 120 freestalls in four rows for the lactating cows, and a fifth row with 36 stalls for dry cows, close-up cows and heifers. The design features two maternity pens and a bedded pack pen for special needs cows. The stalls have water mattresses bedded with sawdust, limed every other day and cleaned four to five times per day. Alleys are automatically scraped on a timer.

“The biggest factor that went into the design of the barn would be the facilities for the dry cows and pre-fresh cows. We did not have proper facilities to handle those animals, so that is why we decided to add the dry cow/close-up with the lactating under one roof divided by the feed alley,” Matt says.

Each family member seems to have their own favorite things about the new facility, but Matt says everyone enjoys the benefits that the feeding system brings to the cows.

“There is not much that we wish we could change about the barn that isn’t a small minor detail,” he says. “But having additional box pens in which we could put special needs cows and show cows in would have been a nice feature to have.”

The Hansons built their barn with the future in mind; it is designed in a way that another freestall could be built later and another set of robots added. The feeding system can handle doubling the herd.

Since their new facility was constructed on a new farmstead, they would have had to construct a commodity shed, purchase a new TMR mixer (they did not use one in the old facility), facers, etc. When they crunched the numbers, they realized it made sense to go with a robotic feed mixer instead.

They chose the Lely Vector. The unit is self-propelled, and the crane system scoops up feedstuffs – including corn silage, baleage, dry hay and ground corn, along with a protein mineral mix from bulk bins that are delivered to the mixer by auger. Once the ration is mixed, it goes down the feed alley dispensing the PMR.

“It’s actually simpler than we thought it would be,” Matt says. The unit is set up to mix and deliver three different rations: a single lactating ration broken up into three different deliveries, a close-up dry cow ration fed two to three times a day and a far-off dry cow ration fed once or twice a day. The robot mixes and feeds a total of 14 to 18 deliveries of feed per day. Matt says they have had a decrease in the amount refusals; there is very little waste because the cows like the fresh feed. The feeding system has a pretty quick payback, he says, of less than five years.

Matt adds there are many things about the robotic feeding system that are hard to put a price tag on, such as not having to open the barn doors when it’s 35 degrees below zero, not tracking snow and mud in on the tractor tires and not disrupting cows by driving equipment in the barn.

Matt says the feed kitchen is built to hold a week’s worth of feed, but they usually restock it more often. “In the summer months, we fill the kitchen close to every 36 to 48 hours to keep the corn silage as fresh as possible during the hot days. In the winter, we fill the kitchen every three to four days.” The feed kitchen has in-floor heat to help thaw out the bales of baleage so they are easier for the grabber to pick up and get to the mixer. Corn silage is brought into the feed kitchen in big blocks (4 by 5 by 3 feet) cut out of the silage pile with a block cutter.

The Hansons believe their feeding system saves them a couple of hours every day. It only takes about an hour or so each time they fill the kitchen.

The unit feeds a PMR; the cows receive their main energy source in the form of pellets fed in the robotic milking units.

When asked what advice they would have for others considering robotics, Matt says, “Do it for the cows. Yes, the robots give you the flexibility with time to do more outside activities or projects, but at the end of the day, it comes back to the cows, and putting in robots should benefit them mainly.”

“Look into benefits for the cows that the robots bring and how that change can make you a better manager and dairyman,” he says. “And, design the facilities with the thought of being able to minimize the amount of people needed to operate the barn and manage the cows. That being, have proper gates in place to sort cows as needed for breeding, treating or fetching cows, etc.”  end mark

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.

PHOTO: The Hanson family pictured here includes three generations of Minnesota dairy producers. From left to right: Steven, Lynn, Mike, Linda and Matthew Hanson. Photo provided by Matthew Hanson.

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