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Why we chose robots - Shuler Farms upgrades to robots to involve next generation, enhance on-farm store

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 December 2016
Twine cutting ceremony for opening new robotic milking system

Just a short drive from downtown Chicago and nestled between Lake Michigan and the vineyards that consume the southwest corner of the state is a five-star hotel for cows that is Shuler Farms in Baroda, Michigan.

Bill and Carolyn Shuler, their two sons (Billy and Wyatt) and Bill’s mother, Shirley, began to make plans for their farm renovation in January 2015 when Bill’s father, Ward, became ill. “We wanted to show my father the plans because we knew he wasn’t going to survive to see the resulting product,” Bill explains.

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In July of 2016, they hosted a baler twine-cutting ceremony with a community audience to introduce their friends and neighbors to the high-tech world of dairy farming and to shine a spotlight on the contrast of where they were and the direction they are headed with robots.

The change from a tiestall barn to robotics was a decision the family came to when they realized they either needed to “do something or quit,” Bill says. “My sons were interested in staying on the dairy, and we wanted to minimize our labor as much as possible.”

Robotic milking systems allow for flexibility for people and cows

A new heifer barn, a pack barn and a robotic milking system with the capacity to milk 120 cows was the result, and “It’s a whole change of lifestyle, and it’s taking a lot to get used to,” Bill says. “For the longest time after we started using the robots, the boys and I had this uncontrollable urge at 3 p.m. to go out to the old barn and start doing chores.”

The Shuler farm has a storied history of cheesemaking before it was actually the Shuler Farm. Today, the Shulers’ vision is to be a place where interested people can see how their family interacts with the cows and the care given to produce a quality product consumers want to buy.

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As a retired teacher, Carolyn Shuler realizes the importance of teaching about agriculture in the public schools. She says, “We hope to work with classroom teachers to show how skills learned in school are used every day on the farm.”

The new pack barn keeps the cows cooler in the hot summer

The future for the dairy includes bottling milk, making cheese and ice cream, and selling their products in their farm store. Currently, they are selling ice cream that is purchased, fresh eggs, T-shirts and offering farm tours.

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

A. Our time flexibility has improved. We are not tied to milking twice daily. We are more efficient with our time. The occurrence of mastitis has declined, with our average somatic cell count now less than 100 when it used to average 130 to 140.

We have only treated one cow for mastitis since we moved them to the new barn. Our record-keeping has improved, and we are making data-based decisions. We still need to spend time just observing the cows.

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

A. Cow comfort was key. We also wanted to make it as efficient as possible while making it appealing to the dairy industry and the public as well.

Q. What is your favorite feature of the new facility?

A. Bill: The observation deck.Billy: The robots and the data that we receive from using the robots.

Wyatt: The robots and the composting pack.

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

A. Bill: I would put windows in the back of robot booths and change the direction of the wind tunnel so that it does not blow over the milkers.

Billy: I don’t want to change anything.

Wyatt: I would make more small gates in the back of the box stalls to increase accessibility to each stall.

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

A. Tour lots of farms to experience the differences in setups and equipment. Be open-minded while looking. Ask lots of questions, not of just the salesmen but the farmers who already use the equipment.  end mark

Melissa Hart is a freelance Writer from North Adams, Michigan

PHOTO 1: Carolyn, Shirley, Wyatt, Billy and Bill Shuler all celebrate the opening of their new robotic milking system at a “twine-cutting” ceremony.

PHOTO 2: Robotic milking systems allow for flexibility for people and cows. 

PHOTO 3: The new pack barn keeps the cows cooler in the hot summer days with fans and a misting system. Photos by Melissa Hart.

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