September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Josh and Brittney Kelm are now the fourth generation to be a part of the dairy along with their children, Ava, 3, Payton, 1, Colton, 5 months. They work together with Josh's parents, Jerry and Colleen, on their 140-cow dairy near Faribault, Minn. Last December and January, the family started milking their herd with four robotic milkers to accompany the new 10-row freestall barn that is bedded with manure solids.
The Kelms first started using two robots on half of their barn Dec. 27, 2015 and then added 20 more cows and fired up the other two robots nearly three weeks later.
One of the best aspects of having robots to milk the cows is the information that comes with them, Josh said. However, he also mentioned it can be a challenge sometimes.
There's so much to look at. It's always fun to look up production. But sometimes there's so much [information] that you don't know what to do with or what you need to look at," he said. "Instead of seeing it with your own eyes you have to rely more on the computer."
Another benefit has also been the ease of milking heifers.
"It was always a challenge to train heifers no matter what system you have them in, but it was definitely a hassle in the tiestall," Josh said. "They adapt to the robots so fast."
Josh said he thinks heifers adapt quickly because of his training method.
"I sometimes push them four times a day and never keep the same schedule. It's sporadic. Then I drop down to three, then to two milkings. I'm just all over the place to the point they can't figure me out. Then when I drop down to two I'll see them stand by the robot waiting for me. Then they usually figure out they can do it without help," he said.
At the moment, many heifers are being milked four times a day with a few maxing out at six times daily. The herd's average times of milkings per day is 3.5.
"But we're not anywhere near capacity," Josh said.
Only 95 cows use the robots. Maximum capacity is 250. About 40 of the other cows still in the herd are milked in the tiestall barn by Josh's dad. In addition to those cows not adapting to the robots, milking in the tiestall barn is a way for Josh's parents to slowly phase out of the dairy.
The Kelms expect to have the barn full in three years.
"It will be nice to grow that slow. That way we have time to learn. If I make a mistake I can shut down a robot for a few hours and slowly work at it and not have a mad line behind the robot," Josh said.
The 10-row barn is split into two pens each with five rows and a feed alley to divide the two. Heifers are kept on one side while older lactating animals are kept on the other.
The limited amount of space for a building is a main reason for the barn's size.
"We gave the builders the layout of the land we had available and told them they had to get 250 cows and four robots in that area. We ended up in an extremely wide barn in order to achieve it," Josh said.
The barn is fit in between the road, their existing barns, a slurry store and the property line.
Like their two tiestall barns and heifer facilities, they wanted this barn connected to all the rest so animals and people could walk from one to another without going outside.
"It's not the same temperature in the barns, but you don't have to be outside in the elements," Josh said.
The Kelms also added a manure solid separator to generate bedding for the stalls. The manure is first pumped into two 7,000-gallon pits before being put through the separator. While the solids are used for bedding, liquid is pumped to the existing 1.4 million gallon slurry store.
"We wanted the benefits of sand but we didn't want the problems. Being that our slurry wasn't big enough we needed to decide how we were going to handle our manure. [Manure solids] became the most logical option. Plus, we had [the slurry store] there, it's paid for and we didn't want to have to change that system," Josh said.
Before the robots, the Kelms were milking their cows in two connected tiestall barns with a total of 126 stalls. They expanded from one barn with 75 stalls to two when Josh graduated from high school in 2004.
The decision for a new facility came quickly in March of 2015.
"We came to the conclusion that we needed the change. Tiestalls were just too much for myself to be doing alone," Josh said.
Jerry and Colleen wanted a way to ease out of the operation without leaving Josh with a large amount of work for him to handle alone.
"[Milking in a tiestall barn] was getting to be a bit too much for me, especially with our growing family," Josh said.
Although Brittney occasionally helps with the dairy, she is busy handling their on-farm diagnostic lab business and taking care of their three kids.
It made robots the easy choice for the new facility.
"Labor was the biggest issue. We had some high school kids working here and there. They're good for a little bit," said Josh, mentioning that reliable help is hard to find. "And we needed to get the heifers up to at least three-time milking. We were bringing up heifers too fast for twice a day milking."
After four farm tours and talking about it for two weeks, the Kelms made the decision and made phone calls to start breaking ground.
Josh and Brittney admit the first few weeks were rough.
"We spent a lot of hours down here when we first started using the robots - eating every meal even taking naps," Brittney said.
"If the kids wanted to see me this is where they had to come," he said referring to the new barn.
They offered advice to others looking at the system.
"It's definitely something you have to have patience to do. Technology has its problems - sometimes more often than you would like. Sometimes it's a quick fix, sometimes it's a couple hours. Be patient," Brittney said.
But so far, the Kelms have liked the robots.
"We're able to have a little bit of a life. We're not so tied to the farm," Brittney said. "We get to spend more time out for the holidays in the afternoon without having to rush back."
Josh agreed that having a flexible schedule has made it easier to enjoy time with his family.
"The most fun is not having to be on time," Josh said. "If the cows don't like that I'm late they can go through the robot. Not everything's set on schedule all the time."
And the robots are his way to continue dairy farming like several generations before him.