September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
These ideas were instrumental in piecing together not only their barn but their future in the dairy industry.
"This was an investment in our future," Steve said. "We built it for us. We have a lot of years left in dairying."
The Dockendorfs - along with their four children, Jeff (20), Kayla (18), Tyler (14) and Bradley (11) - have been dairy farming on their own near Watkins, Minn., for the last 18 years. They recently built a 168- by 94-foot cross-ventilated freestall barn, complete with two robotic milkers. Other noteworthy features include the layout, the ceiling, the catch pens, the split entry, the viewing window and the barn's completely white interior.
The ideas for these features and more came from the many tours the Dockendorfs took prior to building their barn.
Steve and Lori toured around 10 robotic facilities over the last few years. The first came while they were attending the Central Plains Dairy Expo in Sioux Falls, S.D. It was this tour that initially sparked their interest in robotic milking technology.
"After that [tour], we were sold on robots. We just wanted to wait and see if they (robotic milkers) were as good as everyone said," Steve said.
They toured that first robotic facility in southwest Minnesota two more times. They also toured facilities in Stearns and Douglas counties and in Iowa and Wisconsin. The more they saw, the more convinced they were that robots were for them.
"It was something we could do with just the two of us and stay around 100 cows," Lori said.
Aside from the robots themselves, the Dockendorfs picked up other ideas along the way, taking many notes and pictures at each stop. Steve like the idea of a warm barn with a low, flat ceiling, which came from a facility in Brandon, Minn. The cross-ventilation concept - versus tunnel ventilation - came from a dairy in Iowa. The barn layout is modeled after a facility in Stearns County, Minn., and the catch pens, split entry, viewing window and white interior all came from dairies in Wisconsin.
Not only did they gain ideas from the robotic dairy producers with whom they visited, they also gained valuable insight.
"One of the biggest things we did was we asked [every producer] if there was anything they would change [about their facility]," Lori said.
Following the many tours, the Dockendorfs pooled together their ideas and designed what would become their new facility.
"Everyone has something different they want; no two barns are the same," Steve said.
That holds true for theirs.
One of Steve and Lori's goals was to make the barn expandable - for future growth should their children join the operation or to make it more saleable, if that time comes. With this in mind, they laid out the barn as a five-row freestall barn with the two robotic milkers, milkhouse and office along the west end. With this layout, they will be able to add two more robots and freestall barn to the west, with the robots, office and milkhouse in the center of the two barns.
By building the barn this way, cross ventilation worked best. Eleven 57-inch fans line the north side of the barn, pulling air through the curtain-sided south. The curtain lets fresh air in the facility as well as natural lighting. LED lights throughout the building supplement this lighting and are amplified by the barn's completely white interior.
"I liked how bright it was. That's what sold me on white," Steve said of the white interior.
Choosing what lights to put in the barn was a tough choice for the Dockendorfs, but they chose LED lights for their energy efficiency.
"We were told they (the lights) would pay for themselves in 1.5 years with the energy savings," Steve said.
The lights are set on long-day lighting, running 16-18 hours each day. During the six to eight hours the LED lights are off, two red lights provide enough light for the Dockendorfs to make their way around the barn without affecting the cows.
While many of the barn's features came from tours, the idea for slatted floors was their own. Steve grew up with slatted floors and wasn't about to give that up.
"The concept was, if I couldn't put a pit under it I didn't want to build it," he said.
To clean the floors with minimum disturbance to the cows, the Dockendorfs purchased a Lely Discovery - an robotic scraper that cleans the aisles hourly. For that same reason, they also purchased a Lely Juno, a robotic feed pusher that pushes up feed to the cows every hour in a bunk that allows one foot of bunk space per cow.
"We have had zero feed refusals since the cows have been in the new barn," Steve said.
The Dockendorfs have been enjoying their new facility since Aug. 15. Once dirt work was done and the pit was in, it took just shy of three months to build, thanks in part to their kids being home for the summer. Their first milking with the robots began at 7 p.m. on Aug. 15.
"Then it was around the clock for quite a while," Steve said.
The transition itself went smoothly. They credit that to being very aggressive during the first days in the robots and to the excellent help of Jeff and Kayla and their friends to push up cows.
"We pushed all the cows through every eight hours for the first week," Steve said.
Now, the majority of their 102-cow herd is visiting the robots regularly without hesitation. They have dropped 100,000 off their SCC and production is back up to what it was in the old barn, most likely due to the cows being milked more often, they said.
Another change has been the amount of physical labor required of the Dockendorfs each day. While they had a good setup, the tiestall barn was very labor intensive.
"It still takes time and dedication," Lori said.
"But it's a lot less physical labor," Steve added. "I noticed it right away in my back and shoulders."
Their old facility now houses maternity pens, dry cows and calves. Previously, their dry cows were housed on Lori's parents' farm just south of the Dockendorfs.
"We don't miss having to trailer them (transition cows) back and fourth," Lori said.
The new robotic facility will allow Steve and Lori to continue pursuing their dairy career while at the same time allowing them to enjoy the things that drew them to dairy farming in the first place - time spent together and with their kids.
"I've grown so close to the kids because I'm working with them and communicating with them," Steve said. "Working with the kids has been huge."
The decision to go robotic didn't come on a whim, but through countless hours of research and touring, bringing ideas and knowledge together to piece together their dream.
"We did it because we thought it would be right for us," Lori said.
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