August 16, 2021 at 1:31 p.m.
“The relaxed atmosphere robots create is what made us fall in love with this technology,” Ryan Horsens said. “After cows eat, they flock to the robots. The environment by the robots is friendly, inviting and calm. This is a cow’s fun three times a day rather than a chore.”
Horsens Homestead kicked off the Professional Dairy Producers Dairy Robotics Tour July 15 – an event which allowed dairy farmers and other industry professionals to visit three farms in Shawano County that recently installed robots.
Jeff and Connie Horsens and their son, Ryan, milk 1,200 cows near Cecil and raise all youngstock onsite. Ryan is the fifth generation on the farm that was homesteaded in 1879. Robots were the answer to the Horsenses growing their herd without growing their workforce.
“Our biggest stressor as a family was high employee turnover,” Horsens said. “Robots are labor efficient and helped alleviate this problem. We wanted to find more cow people rather than just fill a role. We have 15 full-time employees now and work with a passionate group of people.”
In January 2020, the family began milking with twelve Lely A5 robots in their new 18-row freestall barn. More than half of the cows at Horsens Homestead are milked by robots. The Horsenses did not give up parlor milking altogether and continue to milk around 500 head in a double-8 parallel parlor. Udder confirmation and milk speed are the traits used to determine the cows selected for the robot barn.
“For the longest time, we used the best A.I. bulls that money can buy to improve our genetic base,” Horsens said. “We’re still using the same bulls, but we make sure the right one is paired with the right cow to get the type of udders we want.”
The Horsenses also strive for longevity.
“We want 40% of our herd to be third lactation or greater,” Horsens said. “Old cows are good cows.”
The Horsenses are seeing equal milk production in both barns, averaging 100 to 110 pounds of energy corrected milk per cow per day. Fat is slightly higher in the parlor, while the robots are producing a few more fluid pounds. Cows visit the robots an average of 2.9 times per day and receive about 10 pounds of pellets in the robot on a daily basis.
When building their new barn, fresh air and good lighting were priorities for the Horsenses, and nothing was spared in regards to cow comfort.
“The barn was built with a big focus on ventilation,” Horsens said. “We want all cows to breathe.”
The cross-ventilated barn features dozens of variable speed fans located on the north side, providing powerful airflow across the entire building. The barn has no baffles, which Horsens said sacrifice air speed. The barn is also brighter as a result, and translucent side panels let in extra light. The energy-efficient design enables the dairy to keep the outside rows of lights turned off during the day due to an abundance of natural light.
“This cuts back on power and helps lower our electrical costs,” Horsens said.
Cows lie in deep sand beds in spacious stalls designed with a brisket slope. The breezy barn keeps cows cool but was not enough to convince the Horsenses to abandon the use of sprinklers.
“Evaporative cooling is so important on hot summer days that we weren’t going to get rid of it,” Horsens said. “The wind in here does not cause sprinkler drift because we use the biggest size droplet nozzle we can, and nozzles are situated low.”
The barn includes sort pens for dryoffs, hoof trims, failed milkings and training fresh heifers. Heifers remain in sort pens for 3.5 days in groups of four and are milked four times daily to acclimate to the robots. By the third day, 85% of heifers are fully trained. All cows freshen at the parlor before moving to the robotic barn. Cows are housed 120 per pen, and each pen contains two robots with 114 stalls and headlocks. Heifer pens have a lighter population at 55 per robot.
“We’re setting her up for a lifetime and want her to have a good experience with robots, so we give heifers more permissions to milk,” Horsens said. “We fetch cows as needed and are a little more aggressive on fetching than some farms. It depends on her days in milk, but we aim for the least disturbance possible to maximize cow comfort.”
Robots are positioned in an L formation and use the I-flow concept, allowing for a straight in and out when entering and exiting the robot. This eliminates the need for cows to curve around the machine – another feature illustrating the family’s focus on cow comfort. Both robots in each pen are either left-handed or right-handed to prevent cows from developing a preference.
“Lely is the robot we thought would be best for our cows, and its reliability surpassed what we expected,” Horsens said. “You don’t get down time back with robots – you can’t just milk cows faster. We’re so impressed with this brand, and the features we especially like include the fact there’s no indexing, the feed bowl comes away, and we can customize feeding for individual cows.”
Before building their new facility, the Horsenses spent two years researching robots in the U.S., Chile, Denmark and Canada.
“We wanted to see bigger, higher-producing farms with robots,” said Horsens, who recommends farmers tour both with and without a dealer to get the best perspective.
A year and a half in, the robotic barn is living up to the family’s expectations. Cows are loving life at Horsens Homestead where technology changed when incorporating robotics, but the farm’s management basics stayed the same.
“What you do in a conventional facility is the same as a robot facility when it comes to cow comfort, consistency, quality forage and good people,” Horsens said. “There’s no replacement for these things, and none of that changes with robots. The basics make you successful not the robots. And we still provide individual cow care even though we’re a little bigger now.”
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