A new way of life 

Piepers add seven robots to improve labor efficiencies

NEW PRAGUE, Minn. − For the Pieper siblings, the decision to add a robotic milking system to their farm was based on a decrease in labor and an increase in efficiency.
“It was the summer of 2019 and we were dealing with employees not showing up, people not showing up on time, labor wages and the increasing time commitment for chores,” Emily Pieper said. “We had to do something.”
Pieper milks 450 cows with her parents, Ray and Bridget, and brothers, Nick, Brian, Dan and Tim, on their dairy farm near New Prague. The family added on to their existing freestall barn and put in six Lely A5 robots as well as a seventh in another freestall barn for fresh cows.
They started milking in the new setup June 8, 2021. Previously, the cows were milked in a double-10 herringbone parlor.
“It’s still a lot of maintenance, and you still have your chore times,” Pieper said. “But there are fewer labor hours, and it’s more flexible.”
The Piepers are in the barn at 4:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to scrape the areas not reached by their automatic manure scraper, scrape the manure off the backs of stalls, wash the robots, fetch cows, feed the herd and take care of the calves.
“Chores take half the time now,” Pieper said. “We can be done in three hours depending on how many calves are born. And it only takes two people as compared to six hours with three people.”
Having used the new technology for a year, the Piepers have a good grasp on their herd’s productivity with the robots.
“Some cows come in six times and some only come in 1.7 times,” Pieper said. “The 1.7 cows are the ones we are fetching, but it’s only 20 cows out of 450.”
The main freestall barn is split in half with the feed ally down the center. Each half houses about 200 cows.
“They all have access to three robots to choose to milk from 24 hours a day, roughly 67 cows per robot in that barn,” Pieper said.
The fresh cow barn robot milks about 55 cows.
“This is due to size of the existing pen and to allow the cows to get milked more often,” Pieper said.
The Piepers also have a separate route pen with 15 stalls on the end of their robot barn. This pen catches cows that are detected sick or programmed to route because they need to be bred, checked by the veterinarian or hoof trimmed.
“That was a big thing that we wanted to save on labor,” Pieper said. “That way you don’t have to go sort through all the cows every time you need a couple cows.”
During the transition into the new barn, which began June 8, 2021, the Piepers also milked some of their cows in the parlor. They started with 45 cows per robot.
“You can’t start full capacity because it takes time to push the cows through the robot, and the robot can only milk so fast,” Pieper said. “We wanted to shut down the parlor as fast as possible, so each week we brought more cows over and shut the parlor down within a month.”
Exactly a month later, they were milking all the cows with the new system.
The Piepers are thankful for their part-time employees, neighbors, friends and family who helped along the way with jobs like pouring concrete, setting trusses and tinning the roof. Others helped push and train the cows to use the robots.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Pieper said.
Planning for the robots was a one-year process, and the construction phase was another year.
“We originally wanted to put in a carousel and began touring those farms,” Pieper said. “When we did the numbers, it didn’t really make sense for us. … We started looking at robots and it made a lot more sense.”
By fall 2019, they began touring robotic dairies within driving distance of the farm, both in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“We talked with farmers and saw what they liked or didn’t like about their setups,” Pieper said. “The setup can make or break a robotic herd depending on how much labor you actually save.”
The Piepers started the permitting process through the county in the spring of 2020, signed the contract to purchase the robots in May 2020, and started moving dirt and construction June 10, 2020.
“We don’t like to drag our feet,” Pieper said. “You can talk about something forever, but if you don’t take action, it’s never going to happen.”
The robot barn was designed and built by the Pieper family. The major dirt work, main electricity and installation of the robots was hired out. They also added a 3.5-million-gallon concrete solids manure pit at the same time.
The pit drains into the existing liquid lagoon and allows for a year’s worth of manure storage.
The robot barn has an insulated roof, temperature-controlled curtains, automatic manure scrapers, fans and sprinklers.
Since the installation, the Piepers have experienced a number of learning moments while adjusting to the technology.
“The robots increase our free time and quality of life,” Pieper said. “It really is a whole new way of farming and new routines develop. Yes, sometimes the robot calls in the middle of the night, but so far, we are very happy with the decision to install robots.”
The Piepers are happy to have a better living environment for their cows and a better work environment for themselves.
“We are working 65 hours a week compared to 80 hours before,” Pieper said. “That means we get to spend more time with our families, attend weddings and live some sort of life. It’s rewarding to walk down the barn and see it all be real.”


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