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

Wagners doing well with robotics

Production up 14 pounds a day
Steve and Michael Wagner built a 66- by 216-foot freestall barn with a curtain ventilation system. The cows are bedded with sand. The Wagners are converting their old barn to a calf raising facility.  Photo by Kelli Boylen
Steve and Michael Wagner built a 66- by 216-foot freestall barn with a curtain ventilation system. The cows are bedded with sand. The Wagners are converting their old barn to a calf raising facility. Photo by Kelli Boylen

By by Kelli Boylen- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

MONONA, Iowa - The first farm with robotic milkers in Clayton County is up and running, and doing well.
Steve and Paula Wagner bought one Lely robotic milking unit and their son, Michael, bought another  for their new freestall setup, located just north of Monona. Their farm, which has been in their family since 1852, is located within the city limits. Their new set up is just a short distance outside of town, so they would have room if they ever decide to someday increase their operation.
Steve said when Michael was almost done with the two-year ag business program at Northeast Iowa Community College last spring, they started considering their future plans. They looked at parlors, but the more they thought about it they realized technology is the way things get done.
"The future is changing. GPS systems are used for corn planting, and robotics can milk cows. This can be a great management tool," Steve said.
The Wagners were milking about 85 cows in a stanchion barn built in 1940 when they decided to update the farm. They started growing the herd from within and now have about 105 cows, working toward a goal of 120.
Each robotic unit can handle up to 65 cows.
"I've been farming with my parents since I was little," Michael said. "I always wanted to milk cows. My parents told me I had to go to college first. When I returned home last spring we decided to build."
If they increased their herd size and went with a parlor, they knew they would have to have hired labor. When they considered whether they wanted to manage cows or manage people, they chose robotic milkers.
The Wagners said one person can run the farm with this set up if needed, where with a parlor two people would be needed.
They started using the robotic milkers on Nov. 2. Michael and Paula started milking in the old stanchion barn at about 5 a.m., while Steve, Kellie, and Rachel (Steve and Paula's daughters) started hauling cows to the new barn. By 8 a.m. they had all the cows moved, and at noon they started running cows through the robots. The first milking took them about seven and half hours, since the computer had to learn the teat placement of each cow.
The first few days were long, but things went well. They credit the help of the crew from the local Lely dealer and family members helping through shifts.
"There is good support behind Lely," Steve said.
After three days, many of the cows started going through themselves. After a week, about half of them would go through the robots themselves, and as the days passed they had to bring up fewer and fewer cows. Now they have to bring up five to ten cows each day; the computer tells them which cows haven't been in to be milked for a while.
"The cows have adapted pretty well," Steve said.
The cows are milking an average of 3.3 times a day.
The Wagners are still feeding a TMR like they were in the stanchion barn, but production is up about 14 pounds per cow per day. They credit cow comfort, and having adequate bunk space.
Michael said they have noticed the cows have mellowed and a person can usually walk right up to them without them becoming agitated.
The Wagners 66- by 216-foot freestall barn features a curtain ventilation system, which will take advantage of the natural breezes they have on from being located at the top of a ridge. They bed with sand, have cow brushes, and are currently trying out an automatic device that pushes up the feed. Manure is removed with a skid loader.
A 36- by 42-foot addition to the freestall barn houses the robotic units and an office.
Steve said he is thankful for the mild winter while they are getting used to their new facility. He is also thankful for the ease on his body.
"We did things the hard way for a long time," Steve said. "This is much easier on the body.
The Wagners have a lot of information to look though. The robotic milking system can track up to 162 different pieces of information for each cow, from temperature and rumination to udder health and milk conductivity. It can track something as detailed as how much milk is given from each quarter in how much time, to something as basic as the cow's daily weight. The activity monitoring part of the system tracks heat probability and activity information is also watched as part of the information that triggers alerts on possible sick cows.
Michael handles most of the computer work and he tells the system what is important to him. That way he can quickly check records and can dive into more detailed information at his convenience.
The Wagners are able to electronically share information with people they work with, such as their nutrition consultant.
"I know a whole lot more about each of the cows," Michael said. "That is what I like most about the system."
Michael is able to get to the sick cows quicker than when they were in stanchions by watching the computer. He can also see the cows better because they are able to move around in the freestall barn.
The Wagners are converting their old barn to a calf raising facility. Cows freshen at the old farm and will be transported to the new facility. Michael said moving a fresh cow and getting her through the robotics for the first time only takes about 30 minutes.
With their new facility, they have also made the switch to using AI instead of an on-the-farm bull.
The Wagners said they would not change anything about their new set up.
"We are satisfied with the way it was done," Steve said.
He encourages people considering robotics and/or a building project to talk to other people who have been through it.
"Talk to enough people to find out what will work for you," he said.
Steve said they do not have plans at this time for an open house.
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