As we head into August, Wisconsin State Fair is in full swing. Many of my employees are showing their animals or projects, or volunteering throughout the 11-day event. They have put their request for days off in the beginning of July to be certain they could attend. They are now requesting off for band camp, or a weekend off so they can have one last camping trip before school starts again.
    All my employees are students. They milked alongside me while we were in the tiestall barn, and they have all continued to work with our cows in the new robotic barn. They all know our cows, and our cows know them, too. They are comfortable walking around fetching the cows that have not gone through the robot in the time they need to be milked. These students will be heading back to school soon, and I will be in need of more help shortly.
    The new helpers will not have to milk cows. They will not know my cows, but they learn very quickly which cows usually need to be fetched. These new members of our crew will need to be calm, quiet and persistent. They will be strolling our cow pen looking at ear tags, and tapping the cows on their shoulders to get up and move to the robots to get milked. This isn’t a hard job. It is very easy in comparison to milking as before. There is no bending and prepping, no wiping off teats. And no one will be putting on machines, post dipping and carrying the automatic take-off machine up to the next cow. Physically, this is easier. My shoulders and knees feel better, and I am still loving our new barn.
    My present staff will sometimes comment they miss milking in the old barn. They liked hanging out in between the cows and milking together. They enjoyed when we talked and did the milking routine. They actually say they liked the work out.
    However, they were not milking twice daily, and didn’t have to milk solo when someone didn’t show up to work. How quickly they forget when the temperature outside was over 80 degrees that the tunnel ventilation couldn’t keep the cows cool, and the sweat was pouring out of us. By the time we finished, we were all in wet clothes, and wondering there is an antiperspirant we could use on our whole body. We put baby powder into our boots and other places so we didn’t chaff as we ran from cow to cow. Ahhh, yes, now they remember the good ol’ days. I am sure they will tell their own kids about it someday, milking in a hot barn in the summer. Fun!?
    Our new crew will never be able to experience that type of fun. With this new robot milking technology they will work their shifts with a fetch list and sorting stick. They instead will have to help get our fresh cows and heifers through the robot at least three times a day. Sometimes they will need to push the cows into the robot, using gates to pin them in so the cows cannot back up when the gate into the robot opens. A little poke, and the cow will usually step forward into the robot to be milked.
    For the first couple days the fresh cows and heifers are in the sort pen and need to be walked over to the robot through the gates. For new employees, opening and closing gates in the right sequence can be tricky.    
    Learning to make a trap with the gates is basically what it is. It doesn’t take long for these fresh cows and heifers to figure out that more milking is better than less milking, and they head to the robots on their own. After a few days in milk, these cows are let into the general population and can create their own schedule. They will hang out with the rest of the herd; eating, drinking, resting, getting brushed with the Luna brush and then getting milked up to six times a day.
    While the cows are in the robot getting milked, calves need to be fed. Teaching someone who has never had the responsibility of taking care of an animal beyond a dog or cat can be exciting or very frustrating. Weighing and mixing calf replacer is like baking, right? It is important to get it right. Most of these kids have never used a thermometer! So the first few days while learning about feeding calves are great! “The calves are so cute, and I just love bottle feeding!”
    When there are 12-plus calves to bottle feed, the situation goes from fun to not so fun. When one of the cute calves doesn’t want to drink or it won’t get up because it is scouring, it is intimidating and scary. Most of these new employees have never seen a dehydrated calf, and they will need to learn fast the actions they need to take to save it. And as far as that goes, most of these new members of our crew have never seen a dead animal, be it a calf or a cow.
    The guilt when an animal dies can be overwhelming if they feel they were responsible in not giving it what it needed to recover. I always feel the guilt whenever something goes wrong. I always try to handle those situations carefully, and make it a learning experience. Yes, that is what it is to work on a farm – a learning experience. I’m committed to these students to share what it is to be a farmer. Some days are good, some days are bad, and most days are long and filled with hard work.
    This farm is just a step in these students’ lives. Dairy farming will most likely not be their career. They are going to learn that what they do matters. It is a responsibility that will change their lives. Growing with the skills they use here will open doors for them in their future. They will be physically and emotionally stronger, and more knowledgeable about real life. Beyond the farm the possibilities are endless, so I am thrilled to be able to be a small part of what comes next.
    Tina Hinchley, her husband, Duane, and their daughters, Anna and Catherine, milk 240 registered Holsteins with robots. They also farm 2,300 acres of crops near Cambridge, Wisconsin.  They have been hosting farm tours for over 20 years.