A day in the life of the Kilburgs

Eastern Iowa father-son partnership centered around 180-cow robot dairy

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BELLEVUE, Iowa — The calendar read as if spring should have arrived, but April 3 looked more like winter, with strong winds and several inches of snow.

David and Karter Kilburg’s cows were lucky the year was 2024.

That is because the 180-cow herd was enjoying a tunnel-ventilated freestall barn and all the trimmings that came with a new generation of dairying for the eastern Iowa family.

David was ready to sell the cows when his son, Karter, finished college in 2017 and decided to come home to the farm that was established in 1909. It was a surprise to the man who milked 180 cows — initially with his own father — and farmed roughly 1,000 acres.

“He was not really a dairy kid,” David said of Karter.

David’s other son, Kody, lives in Chicago with his wife, Angie, and David’s first grandchild, Liam. 

Karter’s return breathed new life into the dairy where earlier generations had labored near Bellevue. In 2019, David and Karter built the barn and installed a Lely robotic milking system.

“It was a no-brainer to put in robots,” David said. “I’d always wanted to, but it didn’t make sense until Karter returned.”

On April 3, the cows were comfortable and moving with regularity into the three machines while the Kilburgs and two employees braved the elements to complete the other necessary duties.

That included making the daily rounds to do chores on five other farms where calves, heifers and dry cows are housed. Two full-time employees, Stephen Burke and Ubaldo Lopez, were on hand to help.

Before building the new barn, the Kilburgs milked in a double-8 parallel parlor that had the typical daily duties that came along with it. Now, chain scrapers clean the alleys and an automatic feed pusher keeps the total mixed ration in front of the herd.

Karter and David agreed that using manure solids for bedding is one of their favorite decisions in the new facilities. After scraping, manure moves 12 feet to a reservoir that can hold a week to 10 days of manure. The system removes the liquid from the manure and delivers it to a room attached to the barn.

“It was our best purchase,” Karter said. “The cows really like to use the stalls; they like their own smell in there.”

One difficulty that morning was a plugged pipe that should have been delivering those solids to a storage area.

Once it was fixed, Karter or one of the farm’s two full-time employees provided fresh bedding to the cows with a self-driven BOBMAN machine the Kilburgs have had for two years.

Without adding cows, the facilities helped improve daily average milk production and herd health significantly.

“It’s been a drastic improvement,” Karter said.

The entire herd has been bred using the ProCROSS three-way crossbreeding system of Holstein, VikingRed and Montbeliarde since 2002. In the calf pens April 3 were a couple of black white-faced calves, a fully red one and a spotted red and white. A similar variety of colors dotted the milking herd.

“It’s all I’ve ever known,” Karter said.

For David, crossbreeding was a way to counter what he felt was a Holstein line that was becoming too inbred.

The higher components of crossbreeding fit well with the sale of their milk to Lactalis in Bellmont, Wisconsin. Heifers are bred with an Angus bull, and all calves are sold. Bull calves from the cows in their second lactation and beyond also leave the farm with a regular buyer who was due to pick up calves that day.

The unpredictable April weather was not yet too worrisome for David, who was expecting delivery of a new corn planter any day. Since they practice no-till on their hilly farmland, the spring work normally starts a little later in the month.

David has a Dairyland Seed business and has been focused on preparing orders for customers across the region.

April 3 was an average day at the Kilburg dairy, but Karter will have a few unusual ones in the coming months, due to his upcoming wedding Sept. 14. He met Lynsey Dawson during another not-so-normal day during a vacation to Mexico.

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