September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
"Derek always said, 'if you take care of the cows, they will take care of you.'," Amanda Zigan said.
Derek and Amanda will test that motto on Monday, July 14 when they bring their cows through two new Lely A-4 robotic milking units for the first time. Derek, Amanda, and their three children, Jax (4), Chloe (3) and Jovi (1), milk 90 cows on their farm near Long Prairie, Minn.
"We are ready to get started," Amanda said. "We are so excited to finally get to use them."
"It will be a good feeling," he said.
The idea to use robots began in 2008, right after Derek and Amanda were married. They were milking 80 cows in the old stall barn.
"We were continuing to grow the herd to keep the tank full," Amanda said. "Because of that, we were starting to outgrow the barn."
The stall barn was built in 1959 by Derek's grandfather and was later added onto by Derek's parents when they took over.
"It was getting old and worn out," Derek said. "We couldn't keep running the cows in there with twine strings and duct tape holding things together."
"We were limping along," she said.
Knowing things needed to change, the Zigans looked at robots.
"The big kicker for us was replacing hired help," Amanda said. "It would also increase the number of milkings and help with cow comfort. Plus they would allow us flexibility with our schedules to go to our children's events."
Although the cost for robotic milkers was large, Derek felt it would be worth it.
"They are just as expensive as a new combine," Derek said. "It's like buying a combine, but it's for the cows."
For Derek, the information the robots would provide was something that interested him.
"I would be able to care for the cows better," he said.
"We would be managing the cows more," she said.
They toured Greg Blaine's robotic dairy farm near Flensburg, Minn. However, when the milk prices dropped in 2009, it put their plans on hold.
"That idea went out the window for the time being," Derek said.
In 2012, the Zigans began touring robotic dairy farms heavily again and soon began working on their manure pit.
"We had to re-do everything to get it up to code," Amanda said. "It was a long process. We had to condemn our old manure pit and build a brand new one."
The Zigans now have a new two million gallon manure pit and a couple stacking slabs.
They also started working with the bank, which was not easy due to the high debt load of building a new facility and installing robots and the lack of information about them.
"We had all of our paperwork ready, and we were shut down several times," Amanda said. "We took a lot of nos. But we kept going because we were confident in where we wanted to go."
After 1.5 years, the Zigans finally got approval from the bank to build a new facility and purchase their automated equipment.
"The other robot farmers really helped us out," Derek said. "They gave us some DHIA records to take with us and show the bank what these machines are capable of."
By November 2013, the Zigans started working on building their new barn, but the weather slowed down the process.
"It was a terrible winter to build," Amanda said. "And this spring has been really wet. We have been battling mud."
For the Zigans, longevity was the focus of the new barn.
"We wanted it to last and be in one piece for the kids when they are ready to take over," Amanda said.
The new 100-by-176 foot freestall barn is basically done. It has a 3,000-gallon bulk tank, 13 57-inch fans, a center cross pit and 118 stalls with waterbeds and sawdust on the top.
"When we toured, we had seen everything from sand to manure solids," Derek said. "The waterbeds were a no-brainer."
"They are low maintenance," she said. "And at the places we toured, the cows loved them."
The two robotic milking units were not the only new technology on the farm. They also purchased two Discovery manure scrapers, one Juno feed pusher and two Luna brushes.
"We figured 'why not,'" Amanda said. "We have seen that the less people are in the barn, the better the cows do because they are not as distracted."
The Zigans also have all LED lights and variable speed drives for the fans.
"We wanted to make this farm as efficient as possible," Derek said. "The LED lights might be expensive at first, but they can save money on electricity and also get us rebates from the power company. They will pay off."
With a little over a week before starting with the robots, the Zigans moved their cows from the stall barn and bedded pack over to the freestall barn on July 5.
"They hesitated a little at first," Derek said. "They didn't know what to think. It was all new to them."
The cows are slowly getting used to the new stalls.
"We still have cows laying in the alleyway," Amanda said.
But things have been improving.
"Everyday there are more cows using them. They'll get it," Derek said. "It takes time. We just have to be patient."
Even though the cows are in the freestall barn, they are being moved to the stall barn to be milked twice a day.
Since moving them, milk production has dropped.
"They have been dealing with a lot of change the last couple of days," Amanda said. "It's expected."
The Zigans goal is to reach 120 cows, but they have only purchased a few cows so far.
"When we budgeted, we figured cows would cost $1,300," Derek said. "Now, nothing is under $2,000."
With the robots starting up this coming Monday, July 14, the Zigans are a little nervous about learning the ropes.
"It's a lot of information to take in," Amanda said.
Despite their nerves, the Zigans feel they made the right move.
"For me it was the only way to go," Derek said. "It's amazing. I can't wait to get started."
"It was a bittersweet day when we put the robots in," Amanda said. "But the best part of this is, we are giving the girls what they need to do well and provide for us."
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