August 12, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.

Modern technology on Merryville Farm

146-year-old dairy hosts field day

By JAN LEFEBVRE | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
Staff Writer

Tiffany Klaphake/Dairy Star

Bill Uter (right) shows a guest how the guided-flow system works in the freestall barn Aug. 1 at Merryville Farm near Waverly, Minnesota. The Uters milk 285 cows with four DeLaval robotic milking units and bed the cows using the only Valmetal automated bedding system in Minnesota.


WAVERLY, Minn. – When Swedish ancestors of Bill and Steve Uter established Merryville Farm near Waverly in 1877, hands and pails were the components of their milking system. 

Today, Bill and Steve, along with Bill’s son, Mike, milk 285 cows using a DeLaval robotic milking system with four units, which were added three years ago in a retrofitted, guided-flow system. Robotic feeders are used in the calf facility, and, this year, a Valmetal automatic bedding system was installed in the freestall barn, allowing the Uters to bed stalls without entering pens. The system is the first one installed in Minnesota. 

The Uters’ use of technology was the topic at hand Aug. 1 during the University of Minnesota Extension’s Summer Dairy Field Day at Merryville Farm.

During the introduction, Bill explained why the family added specific technologies. He and Steve both worked in agricultural business before taking over the farm from their parents, Ron and Kay, in 1994.

“Then it was the original 40-cow tiestall barn and a hay shed, and we had a little bit of land to work with and some supportive parents,” Bill said. … “We are featuring (how we added) technology to an existing setup.”

Bill said lack of labor was a factor in adding technology.

“We’ve reduced our labor significantly and boosted efficiency through production per cow,” he said.

In the freestall barn, the farm’s most recent technology was showcased – the automatic bedding system. Part-time Merryville Farm employee Dylan Marketon demonstrated the system by running the bedding cart over one side of the barn using an application on his phone while Steve explained the system. 

“This is the third machine like this used in the United States,” Steve said.

Tiffany klaphake/Dairy Star

Zach Uter (front, from left), Dylan Marketon, Miriana Uter and Joe Uter; (back, from left) Lori, Steve, Kay, Bill, Vicki, Mike, Aria and Megan Uter were on hand Aug. 1 to host the University of Minnesota Extension’s Summer Dairy Field Day at Merryville Farm near Waverly, Minnesota. During the event, the Uters demonstrated technologies added to their family’s dairy farm in recent years. Not pictured are Miriana’s husband, Nick Uter, and Joe’s wife, Ellen Uter. 


The other two are in Wisconsin, and the Uters visited one of those sites. After much consideration, the Uters chose to proceed with the Canadian company.

“We do both drop bedding and spread bedding on the cows,” Steve said. “What (the system’s bedding cart) does is ride rails (at the ceiling) that go all the way around the barn on the outsides then curl on the ends and come back over the top of the insides over the cows.”

The bedding is made by grinding straw and mixing it with sawdust using a vertical mixer. It is then automatically fed into the bedding cart.

The system can be programmed to disperse different amounts of bedding as needed. The barn has a tail-to-tail configuration for stalls.

The cart comes back to its base to refill and keeps working until the barn is done for each bedding time, which happens twice a day at 5:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., taking a little over an hour each time.

“Before we had this, we were going in there with a cart and a shovel and bedding the stalls – a two-hour-a-day job, a horrible job, with the dust and the physical labor and the cows in there,” Steve said. “The reason we used the cart and shovel is we didn’t want to move the cows. If we would have to move the cows over from where they are lying to this alley to bring in a loader to bring the bedding in, we would lose 8-10 pounds per day just by the disruption of their schedule.”

If bedding lands directly on cows, Steve said, they simply shake it off. 

“We put the rail system in ourselves,” Steve said. “We cut the metal, designed and built the brackets, had them galvanized, put them up, and put the rails in.”

The rails are 40 feet long and 330 pounds each, so even getting them into the barn was a challenge, much less lifting them.

“It was quite a project,” Steve said. “That’s why there’s probably only three of them in the United States.”

They began in early August 2022, installing up to 10 brackets each day as other farm work allowed. They also built an apparatus to hang on the rails, or I-beams, so they could use a trolley on each rail that was in place and roll the next rail into place from it and attach it to that previous one. Time only allowed for placing two or three rails each day. 

Including waiting times for parts to arrive or to be galvanized, the process was completed by the end of November, but they then had to wait for corner pieces to be shipped. The Uters were finally able to begin using the system three months ago.

In another session, Bill, along with Randy Kuechle from Farm Systems in Melrose, explained the robotic milking system on the farm, which incorporates guided flow. Younger cows are kept on one side of the barn and older cows on the other. The Uters also use their parlor for milking special-needs cows, which typically number around 40.

“We take a conservative approach with everything,” Bill said. “We wanted to make sure we had enough milk flowing at all times before we populated this (freestall) barn, and we just kind of stuck with it. … We did not put the milk catches on our robot. (Milk from) every cow in (the freestall barn) goes into the bulk tank.”

The Uters looked at both guided-flow and free-flow systems for the barn when retrofitting it with robots and saw pros and cons with each. In the end, mostly due to not having options for expanding the barn because of where it sits, they chose guided flow.

Tiffany klaphake/Dairy Star

An automated bedding cart operates on a ceiling rail system Aug. 1 in the freestall barn at Merryville Farm near Waverly, Minnesota. The Uter family installed the rails themselves and use chopped straw and sawdust bedding for their cows.


“The free flow would have gobbled up a lot of stalls,” Bill said. “The main part of the barn was built in 1994, and we built it as a cold barn. The alleys are narrow; they were never designed for scrapers. We’ve added on to each side of the barn since then, and we can move more cows with the guided-flow system and not have a lot of congestion at the front of the barn. We didn’t need that big waiting area compared to a free-flow situation.” 

Bill said the system is working well and increasing milk production.

“We didn’t want to be fetching cows all the time,” Bill said. “With this system, if there’s a cow that’s in the (needing-to-be-milked) list, we simply get her up, and she walks down and milks herself.”

Currently, after a cow walks in and the gate closes, the robot cleans and dries the teats, milks the cow, sprays and dries the teats again, and releases the cow in, on average, 6 minutes and 30 seconds. The robots read the collar of each cow, knowing its size, teat placement, milking schedule and other data. If it is not time for a cow to be milked again, she is sent back around the guided flow.

Mike was on hand at the farm’s calf facility to talk about the robotic feeding system. When Bill and Steve first took over the farm, heifers were purchased, as was their feed. As they acquired land to rent and later buy, they added heifer facilities and more of their own feed. Currently, the Uters grow all of their own forages but purchase grain for the calves and the milking ration.

“All of our bull calves we sell within the first week or two,” Mike said. “The robots here are able to handle 120 calves, but we built this barn so we could feed 60 heifer animals, and if something were to happen to the farm, we could do 120 bull calves.”

Heifer calves are first put in hutches for a maximum of 14 days. Then they move into the barn to the young-calf pen for two to three weeks for priority feeding with two of the robots, each with two nipple stations. From there, calves are moved to the older-calf pen, which also uses robotic feeding. In the past, all calves were fed by hauling whole milk from the barn, so labor has been reduced by automating feeding. 

The Uters raise their heifer calves. When heifers are confirmed pregnant, they go to a neighboring farm until up to three weeks pre-fresh, and then they are brought back to the Uters’ farm to calve. Mike said the farm usually adds around one to two calves per day. 

In another session, Barry Visser of Vita Plus described the Uters’ feeding ratio. The farm has two bunkers of corn silage. The Uters have their silage custom chopped.

“About 40% of the dry matter the cows are eating is from that corn silage,” Visser said.

Other forage is in the form of baleage and a small amount of wet brewers grain, a byproduct from nearby breweries.

The Uters use a partially mixed ration, purchasing a complete grain mix with corn, vitamins, minerals and most of the protein. They also have soybean meal kept separate so that if they get higher-protein baleage, they can easily lower the soybean meal to adjust.

Lastly, they use two kinds of pellets for their guided-flow system. One reason pellets were selected by the Uters over meal feed was for time efficiency through the milking system.

“Meal feeds can’t be eaten quite as quickly as pellets” Visser said. “With guided flow, you can get by with feeding cows a little less pellets because they are guided in as opposed to free flow.”

At the final breakout session, Zach Uter, Steve’s son and a data analyst at UMN, along with Jim Salfer, of UMN Extension, discussed the economics of using robotic systems. Zach talked about efficiency in the system being a top priority for profit. Breeding for cows with somewhat smaller frames and specific body types becomes part of the equation so that they fit better through the guided-flow system.

“Breeding has changed; we’re looking for cows that not only produce as well as they are right now but also let down their milk faster,” Zach said. “We’re also looking for teat placement and length because it makes it just that much quicker for the robot to attach, and then we’re looking at cows that are more docile, not as aggressive, because, with the robots, there is more of a chance for them to be bullied.”

Merryville Farm has changed in many ways since Bill and Steve took the reins 30 years ago, but with regular maintenance checks, all new systems are running smoothly. Bill said he only receives an alert call by the robotic milking system around once every couple of weeks. 

“When we were in the parlor, that was 24 man hours a day, getting 280 cows milked, and then we still had to go out and do our chores,” Bill said. “As annoying as getting a call once in a while is, you just remember and think about how it was.”


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