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Why we chose robots: Beavers Dairy

Jen Bradley for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 July 2018
Beaver Dairy team members

When Brett Beavers’ dad, Bob, was still in high school, the family farm in Carleton, Nebraska, transitioned from stanchions to a single-five herringbone parlor for the family’s 90 cows.

Today, Brett continues the tradition of adopting modern milking technology with his five-robot automatic milking system for the Beaverses’ 300-head milking cow herd.

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Bob had sold the cows in 2012, but Brett says as soon as they were gone, they were missed. In 2014, the family jumped back into dairying and bought 40 heifers to milk again, with the intent of building a new barn.

“It was a pipe dream at that point,” says Brett, who has a wife, Tracie, and three sons, Anthony, Jacob and Owen. “At the end of the day, I just felt God was calling me to do this. I had more and more of a heart for being a dairyman.”

Cross-ventilated barn with baffles and evaporative cooling

Now, just over a year into a brand- new facility, he’s happy with the choice he made and the barn he built. “One thing I feel is unique about our barn is the four-row groups,” he says. “It is less bunk space than a 3-row set-up, but this was an aspect I spent hours observing in robot barns, that with cows on their own schedule, it was wasted space having that many headlocks.”

One barn houses lactating cows, dry cows and most of the bred heifers. Brett’s desire is to expand down the road, but he also says the ability to be on the cutting edge of dairy technology is paying off today.

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“One of the big reasons we chose robots is: From a labor standpoint, I think it’s going to get harder and harder to find people to work at a dairy,” he adds. “The thought of cows being milked in a parlor is going to be as unique to our grandkids as robots are today.”

He also says happy cows are good producers, so a climate-controlled environment where the flies don’t bother them has the Beaverses’ herd feeling pretty pampered and milking voluntarily 3.0 times per day.

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

Beavers: We have five times as many animals as we used to, and we probably put in more hours because we’re managing it more intensely, but the difference is: I can adjust my free time to fit in around the things we have as a family. The kids are why I got back into this. A kid [who] grows up on a dairy farm is just different than any other farm kid.

Newly built dairy houses 300 cows and milks with five robots

I like to say a dairyman has about three or four hours of free time a day, at most. Well, now you get to pick and choose when to use it. But the other difference is: I’m on call 24 hours a day with five robots. That’s the tough side of it.

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As any dairyman will know, the work is in the baby calves, and that has not changed. The time you saved in the parlor we’re also putting into cow comfort more often. We’re not set up to handle this many baby calves, so we’re looking into finding someone to raise them for us.

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

Beavers: I drew my barn up myself on a piece of grid paper with a pencil and ruler – and as I was designing things, I toured about 35 different dairies. I took little ideas from nearly every one of them and thought of every scenario I have ever dealt with.

How am I going to move my dry cows? How are we going to do footbaths? I always kept those things in the back of my mind.

One of my main goals was to minimize how often I had to load cows up on a trailer and make it user-friendly so one guy can operate the barn.

What is your favorite feature of the new facility?

Beavers: Probably the cooling system and having the dry cows inside. Our fresh cows are really taking off well in this barn, and the cows are hitting 100 pounds or over quick into their lactation. I attribute that to the exceptional care they are receiving in their dry period. When it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s usually 80 in here because of the evaporative cooling we use.

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

Beavers: Not a whole lot. Maybe I would have had added a bit more free space at the end of my barn on the alleys. I also wish I would have had 65 to 70 stalls per robot versus 60 because in the future I think we’re going to commonly start seeing 70 as the technology improves.

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

Beavers: Number one – Take your time in research and going on tours.

Number two – Design your own barn because if you make mistakes, and you’re the one [who] designed it, you can live with that.

Number three – Know there is a lot of maintenance with robots. You don’t have employees around to do all the physical labor. Know what you’re getting into and make sure it’s for the right reasons.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Members of the team at Beavers Dairy include (left to right): Michael Dahl, Lucius Brown, Anthony Beavers, Jacob Beavers, Brett Beavers, Owen Beavers and Robert Beavers.

PHOTO 2: The Beaverses built a cross-ventilated barn with baffles and evaporative cooling to provide relief during the hot Nebraska summers.

PHOTO 3: The newly built dairy houses 300 cows and milks with five robots. The barn has approximately 400 stalls, and is easily expandable to six robots and can be doubled to 12 robots. Photos provided by Brett Beavers.

Jen Bradley is a freelance writer in Chilton, Wisconsin.

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