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

Norsk Jerseys has first robotic milker in Vernon County

Amundson's milking career extended by new technology
A robot lets Dennis Amundson spend more time analyzing herd data than actually milking. His Norsk Jerseys, Westby, Wis., has the first such milker in Vernon County.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
A robot lets Dennis Amundson spend more time analyzing herd data than actually milking. His Norsk Jerseys, Westby, Wis., has the first such milker in Vernon County.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON

WESTBY, Wis. - Maybe it's not surprising that Dennis Amundson is embracing new technology in his dairy barn. After all, he has a degree in computer science and worked as a programmer for a few years.
These days, Dennis still works with computers. Or, more correctly, computers work for him.
The robotic milker Dennis and his wife, Maureen, bought just a little more than a year ago is the first and only one in Vernon County. It's one of the most visible examples of computerized technology on their Norsk Jerseys, just outside Westby, Wis.
The Amundsons didn't stop with the robotic milker, a Lely A3 Next. They also decided to let a Juno feed pusher made by the same company roam a stretch of concrete in front of their cows.
After 12 months of letting the robot milk the farm's 65 Jerseys, and after six months of using the robotic feed pusher, Dennis is very satisfied. Milk production is up, he said, the cows are eating more, he's spending less on veterinary care, and his knees no longer suffer from the bending and squatting that milking with a pipeline demanded. What's more, he has been able to add 11 cows.
"With a robot barn, you can handle more cows with fewer stalls," Dennis said. "There are cows eating, cows milking, and cows sleeping. They're not all going to be milked at the same time."
Milk production is up 10 to 15 percent from a year ago, he estimated. That's partly because the cows are milked more often. The average at Norsk Jerseys is 3.2 times per day, with no cows milked fewer than two times a day.
Dennis said that, overall, his doe-eyed Jerseys have adapted well to needing to enter the robot to get milked. Only one or two cows must be fetched and nudged toward the machine.
The herd average is close to 19,000 pounds of milk, according to Dennis. The somatic cell count (SCC) runs below 200,000, while the milk protein is at 3.7 percent. Meanwhile, the butterfat content is at an enviable 5.25 percent.
Before the robots could go in, Dennis had to convince Maureen that a robotic milker was the way to go. He encountered other skeptics, too.
"The vets questioned going to a robot when we built this barn," he said. "Now they say they wish more people would do it. Knock on wood - my vet bill is one-third what it was before."
As for his knees, more than 30 years of milking without a robot and without a parlor took their toll. The dairyman has had surgery on both knees, and his doctor advised him to stop milking.
Without the robot, dairying would be a lot harder. Dennis said, "I would probably have to be retired from milking because my legs wouldn't be able to keep up."
Maureen added, "And Andrew probably wouldn't have wanted to milk."
Andrew is Dennis and Maureen's oldest son. He's a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and helps on the farm. Dennis said he thinks Andrew might one day want to take over the business.
The Amundsons have two more sons. Dane teaches in the Adams-Friendship School District and Tyler is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, his dad's alma mater.
Although he no longer needs to actually milk, 5 a.m. usually finds Dennis in the barn. He punches in the combination on the front door's lock, strolls down a short hallway, and turns left into his office.
There, on a countertop sits his computer. Next to it is a window that lets Dennis watch the robotic milker in action while he sips a glass of orange juice.
His computer lets the dairyman know how the cow being milked is doing. It also provides details about previous milkings, such as those that took place overnight, when no human was in the barn.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) collars that the cows wear are vital to the robotic milking system's operation. The collars lets the robot identify each cow. Then the robot knows how much of a pelleted feed to let her have while she's being milked.
Along with data such as milk flow, the robot sends to Dennis's computer a plethora of other information, such as the electrical conductivity of her milk. A change in that factor could hint at mastitis setting in.
To accommodate the robotic milker, the Amundsons had to make one large change: Build an addition onto the end of the old stanchion barn.
The new area is 56 by 126 feet and contains the robot area, an office, milkhouse, vet room, freshening pen, and main cow area. Cows have their choice of using the 56 freestalls or a row of stanchions that provide access to their feed.
For bedding, the Amundsons use shavings. Dennis said he goes through just one skid-steer bucket of shavings each day.
Instead of curtain sidewalls, just the west wall opens and closes, based on the inside temperature. The building's walls and ceiling are insulated, and seven fans move air for the tunnel ventilation system. Air blowing across the top of the cow area hits baffles that force it down toward the cows.
Dennis said the barn did not freeze last winter, and it stayed nice and cool during the summer. That was with no sprinklers or misters. He said milk production didn't drop at all during the hot weather.
The new building lets the cows walk more - to feed, to the freestalls, to the robot. Dennis credits that extra exercise with helping boost the herd's reproductive performance. He said the first-service conception rate now stands at 70 percent.
Dennis has good things to say about the robotic feed pusher, too. "The cows eat more. Feed is always in front of them," he said.
The round, little robot somewhat resembles the R2-D2 machine of Star Wars fame. It's programmed to trundle down the concrete feed alley until it reaches a steel strip that's fastened to the floor. Then the robot turns around and heads back.
It's programmed to push the feed the preferred distance from the stanchion curb. Its frequency of sweeping can be adjusted. Dennis has it set to go to work every hour.
When the robot has finished sweeping, it rolls back to its recharging station and hooks itself up to the electricity.
"I'm real happy with it," Dennis said.
The robots are doing so well that Dennis is thinking about adding 60 more cows and buying another robotic milker. But he would have to increase his acreage from the present 180.
Dennis did not want to mention how much his robotic milker and new building cost. But he did say the milker alone was approximately $170,000. And, he said, the whole setup was comparable in price to a milking parlor.
To anyone even remotely considering handing the milking over to a robot, Dennis said, "You don't need to know anything about computers. These will still work for you. They're real user friendly."
He still spends about the same amount of time in the barn - he's just not milking.
"I do different things now," Dennis said. "And I enjoy it more."[[In-content Ad]]


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