September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Moser family's Christmas wish: a barn full of cows

Iowa dairy expanding herd, milking with robots
Kirk Moser examines the pulsators that are a part of the robotic milking system on his family’s farm.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Kirk Moser examines the pulsators that are a part of the robotic milking system on his family’s farm.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON

By by Ron [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

COLESBURG, Iowa - All the Moser family wants for Christmas is a barn full of cows.
The Clayton County farmers don't need to fret about Santa arriving on time with a bag full of bovines. Indeed, the farm is bursting at the seams with dairy cows, heifers and calves.
As of early November, 93 Holsteins were being milked by a pair of DeLaval VMS (Voluntary Milking System) robots. That left 37 or so heifers to freshen by Dec. 25, so the family's Christmas wish could come true.
Todd Moser, his wife, Lynn, sons Kirk and Kohl, and daughter, Kendra, want the barn full so they can check off one more step as complete in the 900-acre operation's move to robotic milking. Rather than try to get 120 cows accustomed to the computer-driven machines all in one fell swoop, the Mosers opted to start with the 50 cows they milked in the old barn.
The Mosers' main reason for robots was the long-term outlook for their dairy.
"There's no way this farm is going to survive milking in a 40-stanchion barn," Todd said. "The next generation isn't going to do it."
That next generation consists of Kirk, a graduate in crop production from Kirkwood College. Kohl, in high school, will likely be a farmer, according to his dad. Kendra, meanwhile, works in agribusiness in Illinois.
The Mosers planned their herd expansion and new milking facility over two years ago. Family members knew it was time to get the cows and themselves out of the one-story barn that dates to 1975.
"That barn worked," Todd said. "But we've worn out everything in there three times over."
At first, the Mosers considered constructing a milking parlor. But they learned the 54- by 90-foot building they would have needed carried a hefty price tag and would take up far more space than the 24- by 60-foot structure the robots needed.
And with a parlor, the labor would not have eased, as it would have worsened if the family had attempted to add a third daily milking.
"A parlor would have taken more space. And we'd still have to milk the cows ourselves," Kirk said.
The Mosers don't hire much labor, thanks partly to the robotic milkers. The machines make it easier for family members to get the corn, hay and rye work done, and they also allow the Mosers to care for their 120 beef cows, plus a couple hundred Holstein steers.
Before they settled on the kind of barn they would build, the Mosers wanted to see different styles in action. They visited farms as far away as central Iowa and Wisconsin.
"I wanted to see some barns that have been around awhile," Todd said. "What goes on when it's 20 below zero?"
To gather answers, the Mosers toured barns in the cold and the heat. At each place they picked features and ideas they liked, Lynn said.
For their 70- by 256-foot hybrid freestall barn, they voted for three rows of cows, drive-through feeding, rubber-covered alleyways and mattresses in the stalls. They also opted for automatic alley scrapers, curtain sidewalls, fans to help create tunnel ventilation and clear-span, wooden rafters and LED lights. Two more important features are 10 stalls designated for cows that will soon freshen and a one-stall parlor for the first few milkings of heifers.
The dairy center also has a 24- by 60-foot front portion that houses an office, restroom and utility room.
To make room for the dairy center, the Mosers tore down a hog house and feed room, the chicken house that had 200 layers in it and a shed that housed 25 ewes.
Lynn admitted to missing the sheep.
"They're the coolest animals in the world," she said. "They don't bite. They don't kick. If they run into you, they bounce off. Sheep means I have to be here every day. This barn (with its robotic milkers) allows me to visit my daughter, do girls' day out and stuff that wasn't as easy to do back then."
Todd and Kirk echoed her sentiments, if not her exact words.
"We get up an hour later," Kirk said. "At 7:30 or 8 o'clock in the morning, I'm not tired."
The Mosers broke ground for their dairy center this past spring, held an open house in the new facility Aug. 20, moved the cows in the next morning and started milking Aug. 29. Their reason for waiting a week to begin milking was to give the cows time to relax in their new surroundings.
That included letting the cows learn how to navigate the smart gates that are integral to the barn's guided-flow system. In a guided-flow barn, cows must have permission to travel to certain areas. The robotic milking system's computer identifies each animal by way of a radio frequency detection (RFD) tag in her ear.
In the Mosers' barn, if a cow has permission to be milked, a gate opens and she enters the robot room. If she doesn't have milking permission, a different gates opens and the cow saunters off to the feed alley.
Kirk explained how he can enter other cow information into the computer. For instance, if a cow should be bred, he can arrange for a gate to open so she will travel to a specific area. The same can be done for things like vet checks, pregnancy checks and other cow procedures.
"Smart gates are the cheapest hired man you could ever have," Kirk said.
Todd said the guided-flow system and smart gates helped guide the family's decision toward this milking system. He said they did not want to sort and find cows the first thing in the morning. Instead, they wanted to do other things like feed calves and breed cows.
Kirk and Todd said the smart gates make their supply of pelleted feed last longer. That's part of the Mosers' plan to keep the daily operating cost of the robotic milking system as low as possible.
Much of the first day was devoted to mapping udders.
"The roughest part was sleep deprivation that first week," Lynn said.
By the third week, things began to noticeably improve. Now, a few older cows still need to be prompted. But the Mosers said they have yet to sell a cow. If one doesn't adjust to the robots, they plan to dry her off and give her a fresh start later.
After three months of robotic milking, the Mosers said the daily milk average is at 70 pounds, up from 65 pounds in the old barn. The family expects production to climb, partly because the cows are being milked an average of 3.1 times a day.
The fat test has held steady at 3.8 percent, and the protein is at 3 percent. The somatic cell count has dropped to 160,000 from 280,000.
But, Todd said, "I don't care about any of the numbers right now. Let's get the cows in here, keep them happy and keep them comfortable."
And, of course, get the barn filled by Christmas.
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