Building blocks to achieve dreams
Breyers enjoy benefits of robots
The Breyer family – (from left) Cindy, Derek, Dillon and Doug – milks 120 cows in their new robotic facility in Birnamwood, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
BIRNAMWOOD, Wis. – With two sons who wanted to take over the family dairy farm, Doug and Cindy Breyer knew changes would need to be made, and the exploration led them someplace they did not anticipate: robotic milking units.
The Breyers, and their sons, Dillon and Derek, were milking 60 cows in a tiestall barn in Birnamwood. Dillon completed the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course in 2012, and Derek completed his studies at the University of Wisconsin River Falls in 2018. Both knew they wanted to return to the farm, becoming the fourth generation, so the family began to explore their options for the future.
“The tiestall barn was getting worn out,” Doug said. “We knew we needed to add more cows for both boys to come home, and we looked at the opportunity to really focus on improving cow comfort.”
The Breyers were planning to build a parlor with a new freestall barn; however, the sales representative they were working with convinced them to tour a facility that had recently installed the newly-released Lely A-5 robots.
“We toured that facility, and from that point forward, we were pretty much sold on the idea of going with robots,” Dillon said.
The Breyers began building their new robotic freestall facility, keeping focused on the goal of increased cow comfort. The new 3-row, tunnel-ventilated barn has sand-bedded stalls and grooved rubber matting in the feed alleys, and sprinklers for hot and humid weather.
The Breyers fired up the two robots Aug. 12, 2019. In order to expand the herd, they purchased a herd of parlor-trained registered Holsteins from a retiring dairy farmer in western Iowa. Those cows arrived at the farm about a week prior to the start-up of the robots.
“We moved all of the cows into the new barn so they could start getting used to it and milked them in shifts in the tiestall barn,” Dillon said. “It was kind of crazy, but it worked, and I think the cows actually adjusted pretty well.”
The first few weeks of robotic milking were difficult for the family.
“The boys split days, one was here for 12 hours during the day and the other was here for 12 hours overnight,” Cindy said. … “There was a lot to learn for all of us, people and cows.”
Overall, the Breyers said the transition went well for all involved, and they are pleased they had minimal culling through the process, with only two cows leaving for robot-related issues in the past 18 months.
“We are very focused on our genetics, so we will go the extra mile and fetch a good cow if we need to,” Derek said. “But as the later lactation cows have calved back in, they all seem to have figured things out pretty well.”
The Breyers are milking 120 cows, their target number for optimal use of the robots. The cows are averaging three robot visits per day and are averaging 91 pounds of milk per day, up from their 75-pound average in the tiestall barn.
“One of the things we were happiest about during the transition was that we had no cases of mastitis throughout the process,” Dillon said. “The highest somatic cell count we had during that time was 150,000.”
The Breyers feed their cows a grain mix in the robots, a measure they feel allows them to have more consistency in the amount of concentrate consumed by the cows and is a cost-saving measure for them. The remainder of their ration is fed as a ration in the feed alley.
One of the greatest challenges the Breyers have encountered in moving into the new facility is learning how to manage the sand bedding.
“Sand is great for the cows, but once it leaves the stalls, it becomes a real pain to deal with,” Doug said.
They all agree the benefits of the robots have outweighed the challenges, and their herd reproductive statistics have improved as has the foot health of the entire herd.
“Our cows are going to last a lot longer,” Dillon said. “You can already see that.”
The implementation of robotic milking allows the Breyers to keep their operation a family-run affair. It also allows them the time to place their focus and efforts on improving aspects of their farm, including calves and their breeding program.
“We use over 50% sexed semen and raise all our heifer calves,” Cindy said. “We like to keep a strong inventory.”
Derek oversees the farm’s calves, and they are upgrading the tiestall barn to meet their calf-care needs. Calves are raised individually for the first weeks and then are moved to small groups and fed with Milk Bar feeders. Future plans include the addition of automatic calf feeders.
Focusing on the genetic potential of their herd is a passion for both Dillon and Derek. They have made key purchases of animals from prominent cow families and have worked to develop their own branches of those families, following the mantra of breeding for type and feeding for production.
“We select bulls based on type, looking especially at udder composite and foot and leg composite scores,” Derek said. “We also look at percent fat and protein, and now with the robots, we pay close attention to milking speed too.”
They utilize embryo transfer programs to help increase the genetic merit of their herd. They have recently started work with Townlineacre King Doc Lena, the top genomic type heifer in the breed, at +3.65, to be plus for both milk and daughter pregnancy rate, on the December 2020 proof run. A Woodcrest King Doc, Lena is out of a VG-85 Doorman daughter of Gloryland-I Goldwyn Locket EX-94.
The robots allow the Breyers to focus their energies on breeding animals that will move them to the next level in their operation whether through type or genomic merit.
“They want their herd to be well-known, to be a name that is familiar to breeders throughout the industry,” Cindy said. “When they came up with the idea of robots, I couldn’t help but wonder how this could ever work; but I learned you just need to trust in the system.”