January 17, 2022 at 2:59 a.m.
“Before we were milking in a double-5 herringbone parlor built in 1971. It took us over five hours to milk 150 cows,” said Justin Schaffer of their old barn. “We milked pennies out of that parlor we didn’t know we had.”
Jeff Schaffer agreed.
“The robots are a huge upgrade,” he said.
Brothers Justin, Jeff and Jason milk 210 cows with three DeLaval V300 robots they installed on their dairy near Miesville. With the installation, the Schaffers also put up a 71-by-320 tunnel-ventilated barn with automatic scrapers and an automatic feed pusher.
The brothers and their dad, Al, and uncle, George, run about 900 acres of corn, soybean, pea, sweetcorn, green bean, winter rye and alfalfa in both Goodhue and Dakota counties. They raise their youngstock and finish the steers on their fifth-generation farm.
On a typical day, George will come in the morning and fetch cows. He also does all the bookwork and a lot of the maintenance on the farm.
“He’s semi-retired; so, he cut back to 40 hours a week,” Jeff said. “When he did that, he allowed us three to buy into the partnership between him and our dad.”
Later in the morning, Justin comes to the barn and catches the remaining fetch cows and observes the rest of the milking.
“I do all the herd health, majority of the breedings, treatment and vaccine decisions,” Justin said. “I’m basically the herdsman for the farm.”
While cows are being fetched, Jeff mixes feed for the cows, and Jason mixes feed for the youngstock and steers with their two mixers. Jason and Jeff also help with the majority of the fieldwork and maintenance on the farm. Al helps with feeding the youngstock.
“(Al) used to do all the milkings in the old barn, but ever since we moved up here, his main job has been feeding calves,” Jeff said.
The Schaffers first started looking at robots in February 2017.
“It took us four years to do this, and we found that by adding robots, we could add cows and not labor,” Justin said. “We toured over 20 farms all over the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa looking at three brands of robots.”
By June 2019, the Schaffers decided how many robots to put in, and on Sept. 23, 2019, dirt work started. The crew poured the outside walls, footings and the two cow alleys before winter.
“We hired an Amish crew to build the barn, who even worked on Christmas Eve,” Jeff said. “We didn’t think they would work, but sure enough they did and they stayed at the structure most of the winter.”
The Schaffer brothers were encouraged to attend a three-day training to learn about computer software and work with robots in Kansas City, Missouri.
“It was well worth the time to go,” Jeff said. “There were people there from Canada and all over the U.S. It gave me a different perspective on how they do things in regards to feeding and all the different settings involved.”
“I wish there was more time to work on the robots at the training,” he said. “But we made the right choice going with the robots we did.”
By May 13, 2020, the building was ready for its first cows.
“We brought the cows into the barn and got them used to it first on Wednesday, May 13, because they didn’t know what new concrete was,” Justin said. “By Monday morning, May 18, we started milking with the robots, and by Wednesday, May 20, the cows were starting to go through on their own. They adapted really well.”
So far, the Schaffers have been happy with their robots and the barn.
“What’s surprising is how different the cows are,” Jeff said. “They are like tame pets up here.”
“They are also milking more; I’m going to have a 40,000-pound cow this year,” he said.
The robots provide data on herd and reproduction management in addition to milk pounds, a mastitis indicator which is comparable to somatic cell count, all of which can be controlled from either a computer or phone.
“It’s incredible,” Justin said. “Before the cows voluntarily culled themselves out, now we search for problem cows to cull, or we involuntarily cull so we don’t over crowd the barn beyond the robot capabilities of how many cows or milkings they can handle. And, our cull cows are bringing a higher value on the market.”
The robots even have data on individual teats and have helped the farm excel in teat health.
“They have a smart pulsation with four settings which makes for a better milk speed, and the robot finds the right pulsation for each individual cow,” Justin said.
“And the individual quarter milking is better than the all-off or all-on method,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how varying some quarters are in cows.”
The Schaffers have also seen consistent cow comfort and time management.
“The cows went from a two-star to a 10-star hotel,” Jeff said. “You’re not saving on labor with the robots, but it is more flexible on who and when the work gets done. If all of us were gone, one guy could handle all of the work. We could never do that in a parlor.”
The Schaffers advise others looking at putting in robots to tour farms and ask questions.
“Don’t be afraid,” Jeff said. “If you have a barn layout you like, get as many eyes to look at it as possible. The more you look, the more you see, the more you are going to know what you want to do.”
Looking back, the Schaffers would have added more robots and changed some gating layouts to allow for better cow flow.
“I really wanted four robots, and I had this nice plan drawn up, but that would have added 60 more cows and more feed, feed storage, manure storage, and more calves and heifers to house,” Justin said. “This is more financially reasonable.”
At the end of the day, the Schaffers are proud of their robotic barn and look forward to their future as dairy farmers.
“We now have a facility that allows our cows to achieve their genetic potential,” Justin said.
“It’s fun to see high producing cows peaking higher and holding longer all because the cows are being milked on their schedule now, not on our schedule,” he said.
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