It is hard to believe we have been in our new barn for a year and a half. Milking with robots and having robots to scrape the manure along with the robots to push in feed has been amazing. We have settled into the routine and have begun to take for granted all of the technology working for us.
    At regular intervals, we are reminded to do maintenance beyond the daily actions of making sure the robots are running correctly. These are mentioned on the top of the computer screen to make sure we remember to change inflations and pinch valves. We need to be watching for wear and tear on the ropes and hoses. These are things we expect to be able to handle, and, for the most part, we do not need to have a service call.
    There are times though, I will not forget to mention, when things happen because animals are involved doing their own thing. Occasionally, we have a problem that results from a swift, hard kick. More often is the curiosity the cows have when they are waiting for their turn in the robots. They can reach up and lick or chew on the little airlines that run the pneumatic gates that let the cows in to be milked. A bossy cow can stand at the exit, not let the cow out of the gate and stop all the other cows from being milked. We can look at the monitors and see what cow is holding up the show because the camera can even zoom in to see the cow’s ear tag.
    The system has a great way to let us know when something is wrong. It is a phone call. The problem is mentioned and then the voice also tells you what robot is having issues. If it is a critical alarm, the robot will automatically shut down. Then we go into problem solving mode and try to get everything back up and running.
    We count on the robots to do their magic, washing the cows, milking and reporting the data. We can be better at managing the cows that need attention and not worrying about those cows that are just fine. The robotic system is as user friendly as it can be.
    The other parts of the new barn beyond the robots are also automated. We have tunnel ventilation with foggers that can cool the barn down on the days when heat stress is an issue. On the control panel, there are images of each fan with information about the speed they are running. If one fan has a problem, that is not a big deal. But if we have a power failure or surge and all the fans stop, the barn can get hot very fast, so back up plans are needed.
    This is also true for the water for the barn. We recently experienced a critical situation when the phone call from the robots announced that there was not enough water pressure to perform the wash cycle between milking each cow properly. That is a critical alarm, and all the robots shut down. Of course, this does not happen during the week in the daytime. It happens at 11:30 on a Saturday night.
    We called the plumber in the middle of the night and hoped he listened to the message and would respond quickly. It felt like it took a long time for him to phone back, but it really was not. We were in panic mode, because the cows could not get milked, and there was no water in the stock tanks.
    We had put in a new well for the building but had the house well as the backup in case we needed to use it again in a pinch. The new well was having overheating problems. With all this new technology, the well monitor told us there was a fault. Now which valve was that we needed to turn? Where is the key for the lock that kept it safe and secure, so we would not accidentally mess up?
    With all this technology, we still do not have everything figured out when there is a problem. It might have been easy to turn a few levers and switch the flow, but what ones?
    Thank goodness the plumber lives close by, and he knew what to do. This is something else we need to know about. Having a plan for the next time is essential to keep things running and animals hydrated.
    We will be working on having a plan for some of the what ifs to be better prepared. We do know there will always be the unexpected, crazy things that can happen. But having a basic plan will hopefully make it easier the next time.
    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.