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Why I chose robots: Scheer’s Dairy Farm LLC

Jenna Hurty Published on 06 November 2015
Cows mingling

There aren’t many people who can tell you they’ve farmed the same land for more than 100 years – let alone milked cows for that long – but at Scheer’s Dairy Farm in New Haven, Missouri, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing since 1897. 

Rick Scheer is the fourth generation to work on the dairy, which he currently operates with his parents, Eugene and Kathy; wife, Cindy; and his two daughters, Elizabeth and Claire. Although they currently farm about 500 acres, the farm is still located on the original 40 acres his great-grandfather, Julius Sr., bought 118 years ago.

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Although the farm wasn’t specifically a dairy farm, Julius Sr., who owned the local country store, had 12 children, so it’s a pretty safe bet they had at least one milk cow. Rick says he likes to tell tour groups that come through that his family has milked cows in three different centuries. However, it wasn’t until his grandfather came home from World War II in the early 1940s that they built their first milking parlor and switched to bulk milk.

But family farms don’t stay in business by staying in the past, so on July 19, 2011, Rick installed robots and became the first robotic dairy in Missouri. Milking robots

“It was monumental,” Rick says. “It was the first time that we didn’t put a milker on a cow for a hundred years. I mean, we were kind of putting milkers on the cows that first day, but it’s a life-changing deal to not have to be watching your clock to make sure you’re there at 4:00 to milk cows in the afternoon.”

The Scheers opted to retrofit their existing 150-stall, sand-bedded, freestall barn. The new robot building runs along one side of the barn and houses three robots. It also includes a corner office with a large window overlooking the milking area and most of the barn. Due to the way their facility is set up, the lactating cows are all housed in a single group.

Overall, Rick says the investment has been worth it for them. While they haven’t saved him very much time, since his parents and their hired milker did most of the milking, it has saved the farm a considerable amout of time. Although his parents still help with the farm, it has lightened their load considerably and allowed their milker to retire.

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Today, they milk about 150 head. The herd is predominantly Holstein, but there are a few crossbred cows. Rick says their rolling herd average is currently just under 23,000.

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

SCHEER: The work is more flexible. You’re removing the milking part of the labor, but that time in the freestall barn is still there. You still need to groom stalls, fetch cows, breed cows, treat sick cows and turn cows dry. None of that changes, in fact, treating a cow for mastitis actually gets a little bit harder because now you have to go find that cow to treat her.

From a management standpoint, we had a very basic parlor. We didn’t have weigh jars or milk recording, so we went from one extreme to the other with the amount of information that we have. I know that cow’s sick before she knows she’s sick. If I catch her in time, I can treat her and keep her from getting really sick.

We were almost exclusively Ovsynch, and we predominantly bred cows on Thursday mornings. When we went with the robots, it had the activity meters with it, and we went almost exclusively natural heats. All of a sudden, every day, cows come into heat. So it’s a little less predictable.

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

SCHEER: We were comfortable enough with the freestalls that we could just add the milkers without needing a whole new facility. It’s really what made it workable from a financial standpoint. We didn’t have to build everything new, and we were able to retrofit.

I wanted to give the cows plenty of room so we have a little extra room between the robots and any structure. I didn’t want to crowd the cows.

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Because we have three robots in one group, all of our robots go the same direction because if a cow walked up and the machine she usually went to was full, I wanted her to go to the next one. Also, there aren’t a lot of parts that are different between a right- and a left-hand model, but there are a few. Since ours are all the same, it makes it easier to keep a few of the parts.

What is your favorite feature of the new facility?

SCHEER: Being able to take better care of the cows. We had milked 3X in the parlor, and I really liked what it did for the cows and for production, but I didn’t like doing it. We ended up going back to milking 2X for several different reasons. I always liked the idea of milking cows more frequently, which is one reason we went to the robots.

I also like the information so we can catch sick cows quicker and because the robots help us have a more consistent, correctly conditioned dry cow since we can vary the amount of pellets they get.  Cow paddock 

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

SCHEER: I would make freestalls bigger, alleys bigger, crossovers bigger. I wouldn’t change too much about the actual installation of the robots.

Ventilation is an issue for us. Building the robot building onto the existing barn where we did blocked some airflow through the barn. Our ventilation probably was inadequate to begin with since the barn was 20 years old with 10-foot eaves. I really wish we had 14- or 16-foot eaves now. If I rebuilt it now, I would have that.

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

SCHEER:

 1. Whether new or retrofit, you have to think about cow flow and where you’re going to work on cows, treat cows, breed cows, give shots. We still get a pretty good number of cows that come to the feedbunk when the feed wagon comes through, but it’s not like when we milked in the parlor and they’d come out and you could set the headlocks, and when that group was done, you had 98 percent of the cows locked up. You need to either have a place to sort those cows through or a sort pen off the robots. Looking at as many installations as you can helps with this.

2. Leave room for expansion. Don’t box yourself in.

3. Fetch cows, especially in a free-flow system, will end up waiting for you. They learn that they don’t have to get up until someone comes and gets them, so it’s important to vary the times you fetch cows. 

4. Make sure your square footage is going to give you a return on your investment. If you don’t need a large office, don’t build one. Instead, give the cows some extra room because that will impact milk production.

5. Know how you are going to handle the manure because you don’t move all of the cows to the parlor at least twice a day to be able to run in and scrape. You either need some type of automatic manure removal, scrapers, slats or flush, or you have to realize going in that it’s going to take a pretty good chunk of time in relation to everything else to run the cows out of each alley to scrape it.  PD

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