Innovation under one roof
Rolfs build automated facility for all animals
Feed ingredients are mixed in the mixing and feeding robot of the Rolfs’ Lely Vector feeding system March 4 at their farm near McIntosh, Minnesota. The family uses a kitchen to store three days’ worth of forages. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
MCINTOSH, Minn. – From a newborn calf to a cow completing her lactation, every animal on Golden Sunrise Dairy Inc. is housed under one roof in a barn equipped with the latest feeding and milking technology.
“I didn’t have any hesitation,” said Tim Rolf of the new construction. “I knew I needed the younger generation to help, and Derek studied a lot about what would be best for us.”
On Feb. 18, 2020, Tim and his son, Derek, began milking their 140-cow herd with three Lely Astronaut A5 robots on their farm in Polk County near McIntosh.
In 2018, the partners began construction on their housing facilities, which include an automated calf barn attached to a cross-ventilated freestall barn that houses weaned youngstock, dry and lactating cows in addition to a kitchen for the Lely Vector.
The barn stands 562 feet long with the width varying from 138 feet for the cow groups and 148 feet for the heifers and the kitchen. To the south of the facility is a short walkway that opens to a 106-by-70 calf barn.
Calves are housed in individual pens and bottle fed for the first three days of life. They then transition to a pen of 20 calves on an automatic feeder until weaned. At 5 months, the heifers are relocated to the far east side of the freestall barn and move throughout a series of pens until three weeks pre-calving.
A section of pens dividing the youngstock and lactating herds is allocated for far-off and close-up dry cows, including a maternity pen.
Once in lactation, the cows can be moved into one of two pens based on lactation and stall availability in the pens.
“We put in three robots with a planned expansion to four,” Tim said. “When we started this, we also started using sexed semen to build our herd from within. We have 195 head of calves and heifers, and should reach full capacity around 2022.”
With the exception of the calves, all animals at Golden Sunrise Dairy are fed using the automated feeding system which is equipped with two mixing and feeding robots.
Every hour, the robots scan the feed bunks throughout the barn and make rations based on feed availability at the pens.
“No matter if we move cows, it always delivers feed whenever the bunks reach a certain level that the robot scans and reads with a laser,” Tim said. “We have it set to run our dry cows and heifers pretty tight, and also prioritize milk cows. This means if heifers and cows both need feed, it’ll mix a ration for the milk cows first.”
The kitchen – which includes 72 blocks for feedstuffs to be stored – is designed for three days of feed storage. Currently, the Rolfs have it occupied with dry hay, haylage, corn silage and straw. They also use an auger system to deliver corn, soybean meal, minerals and water to the ration.
“Once one robot goes to the barn, the other comes into the kitchen to mix another ration,” Derek said. “So far it’s been great. We continue to be amazed at technology and how it works.”
The Rolfs did not always imagine their facility upgrades to include so much automation. Yet, in developing plans for the future of the dairy, automation made sense.
Tim and Derek have been dairying in partnership since 2016 when Golden Sunrise Dairy Inc. was formed. Prior to that, Tim’s brother, David, was also involved in the dairy operation which the Rolf brothers purchased from their parents in 1987.
The brothers replaced a 4-stall parlor with a double-8 herringbone parlor in 1991 and grew the herd from 70 to 100 cows over the course of 13 years.
“We started looking at robots as we knew our facility was getting to its end of life,” Tim said. “Robots were out long enough that we thought it was pretty interesting and knew the technology was working for people.”
“Something had to be done,” he said. “It was either tear down and build new or quit. I’ve always been here and always liked farming.”
While a new barn and milking robots seemed to be the plan, incorporating the automated feeding system came after the Rolfs toured dairies that used both technologies.
“The plan was to keep the heifers in the old barn,” Derek said. “Then, we thought why fill silos at one location and make piles here? The Vector can feed everything, so we might as well put it all under one roof.”
The Rolfs also hoped to improve cow comfort with the facility design.
Previously, the cows were milked twice a day, but before and after each milking shift, the cows spent a lengthy amount of time in a holding area. Not only this, but with the growing herd, air quality and stall capacity were limited.
Soon after moving into the new facility, the Rolfs noticed a significant increase in production. Their tank average went up nearly 20 pounds per cow.
“It’s amazing to see how we held back in the old barn,” Derek said. “Now, we have 40 cows over 100 pounds. Before, we only ever had a couple cows over that.”
The Rolfs attribute the increase to improved cow comfort through stall design, ventilation and housing youngstock in free stalls prior to lactation which has allowed for a smooth transition into the robots.
“Cows milk, eat and lay down,” Tim said. “Part of that is also trusting in the Lord to take care of things and help us as we go along.”
Tim and Derek work together to understand the technology and how it can best be suited for their dairy operation. They also work with Tim’s son-in-law, Jesse Moan, who became an employee of the dairy in May 2020.
“I get here in the morning and help catch fetch cows,” Moan said. “I’m in charge of feeding the calves, and then we all work together to scrape the stalls, feed and do other work on the farm.”
It has been just over a year since the Rolf family began using all aspects of their automated dairy facility, and farming has never been more efficient.
“With technology and cow comfort, hopefully we can improve all the way around,” Derek said. “We have the genetics, but we weren’t able to get the production out of the old barn. It makes you start to wonder where the limit is.”
“Just thinking of my grandparents and parents, and all this change in technology, … 20 years ago you wouldn’t have thought this was possible,” he said. “And we’re still learning what it can all do for us.”