Dairy farmers are always looking for ways to be more labor efficient, and expos like the Central Plains Dairy Expo are great places to find the latest and greatest gadgets to lead us to better efficiency.
    Three or four years ago they had four different brands of automated teat scrubbers represented that would save labor and standardize the prep procedure in the milking parlor. This year I didn’t notice any teat scrubbers displayed, and maybe there were but I just didn’t see them. Or maybe everyone has already purchased them and the market is saturated. Or maybe it was a poorly conceived gadget that didn’t work out very well.
    When I think back on my long dairy farming career, I can’t help but remember the feed salesman stopping at my dad’s farm every week and peddling high priced protein supplements. The salesman always had a few treats in his car for us kids and gave away free pencils to my dad. The high-priced supplement came in 50-pound bags, and we were instructed to feed one cupful twice a day to all milking cows but give two cups twice a day to the high producing cows. The cows did well on it, and Dad usually had some of the top 10 cows on the county annual DHIA sheet. But Dad was a pretty sharp pencil pusher for his eighth grade country school education, and he soon figured out he could buy bulk protein from the local coop for less money.
    Probably one of the worst gadgets I ever purchased was a blue silo to store haylage in. This happened in 1979 when I was 26 years old, married with two little kids and thought I knew everything. Farming was going pretty good at that time, and I was so sick of baling hay for the cows. Those blue silo salesmen took us on fancy bus tours, and we even got to stay at a new Holiday Inn with a swimming pool. They would show us the fancy successful farms and tell us we could kiss our protein bill goodbye if only we bought their silos. I already had put up a high moisture corn unit from them and was quite happy with it. I decided to buy a 20-80 unit for haylage thinking it would solve all my problems. Wrong decision. Not only did I have a $750 monthly silo payment for the next 10 years, which included the horrible 1980s farm crisis, I had a slow unloading high maintenance silo. Looking back now, I should have poured a slab of concrete, bought a roll of tarp and a big skid loader. The blue tube is still standing on my yard, empty, but being used quite efficiently because of my internet antenna receiver mounted on top.
    We recently have been experimenting with an automated robotic feed pusher. If we could get two of those to regularly push up feed to the 1,200 cows in the south barn it would be wonderful. We have one in there now, but even though it has a computer chip, it does not understand the word regular. The dealership for it has gone above and beyond to make it work right, but it struggles with any obstacle such as an irregular pile of feed, a gate swung in six inches too far or a small stalagmite icicle on the floor. My 12-year-old grandson Vince always gets the giggles when wheels fall off farm equipment or things get stuck, and he starts rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter when the feed pusher is stuck again.
    If money were no object, my want list of the latest technology on the dairy would be a robotic rotary milking parlor. I am always amazed how good cows load onto a rotary parlor. Add robotic prepping and attachers to that, and one highly paid smart millennial who likes to work weekends could run the whole thing. Granted we would be back to automated teat scrubbing machines, but I’m sure they have improved the reliability of those as well. Maybe the day will come when Vince is walking around the Central Plains Dairy Expo and planning for Grandpa’s dream parlor.
    On a serious note, I know many of you are struggling with very tight margins and hard decisions. So are we, along with getting notices of serious hauling rate increases. I don’t have any good answers, but I am very concerned about our family farms. Email me if you want to talk, or if you want me to write about a particular topic.
    Vander Kooi operates a 1,800-cow, 4,500 acre farm with his son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Rita, near Worthington, Minn. Send him feedback at davevkooi@icloud.com. Follow him on Instagram, @davevanderkooi.