How to operate a robot dairy while grazing

Meier highlights management system at pasture walk

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. – Like his father before him, Rod Meier has found success grazing cattle on his dairy farm. While the generational farm has been grazing for decades, Meier has worked to adapt their grazing operation to be more efficient with the addition of a robotic milking system.
“I’ve been more efficient with my time,” Meier said. “I’ll tell you, I’m not going back to milking without robots.”
The Meiers explained their management practices of rotational grazing in conjunction with their robotic milking system during a pasture walk June 23 at their dairy farm in Stearns County near Sauk Centre.
Graziers alike gathered to learn about the Meiers’ operation and discuss how to optimize their pastures at the event which was sponsored by the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship and Sustainable Farming Association.
Meier and his wife, Ruth, are organic dairy farmers. They milk 69 cows with a robot and have 290 acres of farmland, half of which is pasture. The Meiers’ son, Ryan, has returned to the family farm and will take over after his father’s retirement.
Seven years ago, Meier began using the robotic milking system. He has since mastered how to effectively graze while allowing the cows to be milked when wanted.  
Meier grazes his cows during the day. When a cow decides she wants to be milked, she enters the barn through a one-way gate from the pasture. Once she enters the barn, she is not allowed to leave until she goes through the robot.  
In the robot, the cows receive 7 pounds of grain.
“Cows want to go back out to the pasture so they will push themselves to the front of the line to get out and eat,” Meier said. “They’ve learned not to come up in big groups and to naturally rotate, so they don’t have to wait very long in the barn.”
Meier has little to no issue having to fetch cows that do not go through the robot. Cows are milked about twice a day in the summer and 2.4 times a day in the winter.
Meier is looking to update his current robot with a newer DeLaval model that uses cameras instead of lasers to locate the cows’ teats.
At nights, Meier keeps his cows in the barn.
“The mosquitoes chase them home,” Meier said.
Meier has 12 paddocks that he rotates his milking cattle through. He never grazes one paddock for more than three days in a row. However, he will do shorter intervals as the summer progresses and pastures become drier.
Over time, Meier’s pastures have developed into native grasses. He is working to reseed his pastures one at a time per year in order to create more plant diversity. His pasture mix consists of white clover, ryegrass, timothy, orchard grass, long fescue and others.
“I believe the more variety out there, the better it is for the animal,” Meier said. “I had a mentor tell me once that animals should be eating 100 different plants whether that’s fed to them, or they find it on the fence line. There is value in every plant.”
In his milking herd, Meier tries to maintain 40%-50% dry matter intake. With his dry cows and youngstock, he aims for 80%-90%.
Meier uses some of his wet ground acreage by grazing his dry cows and youngstock on it. He has found less issues grazing them versus his milk cows because they are not actively milking, and he does not have to worry about the exposure of bacteria that may be found in the standing water.  
Meier grows all of the feed for his cows. He grows corn, alfalfa, oat, pea and sorghum.
While Meier has been certified organic for 18 years, he has been farming organically for the past 33 years.
“I was encouraged to stay away from herbicides when I started farming,” Meier said. “I used them for three years in the early ‘80s and still regret it today. What is the point of using herbicides and pesticides if I can farm without them?”    
Meier credits adapting to his environment and creating his own grazing practices for his success.
“I have learned that reading the back of the bag will only get you so far,” Meier said. “Most of the time, you have to try it out for yourself, experiment and see what works for you.”


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