I have been writing about the changes that have taken place on our farm over the past few months with the ultimate culmination of our cows being milked with robots. This has been an amazing time for our family and cows. We are all still learning and finding out how things will be different from now on.
    The biggest change for me is to rely on technology to take over. Most of the cows will go to the robots a couple times a day. They get milked, and loads of information is created. We only need to sit back and watch. We pick out the information so we can be better managers. How we pick out what we want and need to watch for is our own choice, but there tends to be a few very important reports. To make the information easier and friendlier for me to decipher, I took time to add the cows’ names to their ID numbers, since I can remember names better than numbers. That was an easy fix, and saves me a lot of time.
    Most of the cows go to the robot, but not all. So, there is always a fetch list report to bring these girls to get milked. They tend to be the later lactation cows or ones that have a reason for not coming to the robot, such as a swollen hock, foot problems or a heat cycle.
    Another list we get from the robots is the daily health report. We use the information to manage the cows that might be getting mastitis. We can watch the conductivity of the milk. If a cow is not able to fight the infection, we see the progress with every milking. Being able to decipher if a cow needs to be treated or not is a big deal for us. No farmer likes to dump milk. Keeping milk in the tank is everyone’s goal.
    So far this winter has been all over with temperature and humidity in our barns. The health report will also help with watching milk temperatures. On this report, drop in milk and temperatures give us a warning that a cow might be coming down with pneumonia or might have an injury that needs attention.
    Along with all of this attention to the cows, we still have to make sure the robots are washed and checked throughout the day. If there is a problem, the system calls us and lets us know what robot and what needs to be looked at and fixed. These alarms can be called to us any time of the day, since the cows are being milked all the time. We have had a few already. Most are an easy fix. A couple have required looking back on the computer to see when something happened to gain more insight and solve the mystery. Any down time when the cows have to wait to be milked is often lost milk. Usually they are standing at the gate watching and waiting to enter or are simply curious as to what is going on.
    We have a handful of silly heifers that like to repeatedly go through the robot to get a lick or two of the pellets that are dispensed when they get milked. If they go through too soon after being milked, they robot will kick them out. Some will wait and try over and over, causing problems for the cows that need to be milked. We are still tweaking the feed ration and the pellets to get the right formula for these girls. Until that is solved, we watch them on our cameras.
    Our phone has a camera app that is in real time. This camera app works great along with the cows’ activity collars. Together they let us know about calves being born or a distressed cow that is having trouble calving. We can watch the pre-fresh cows, sorting pens, robots and even outside the barn to see if the milk hauler has picked up our milk. Knowing what is happening at the farm when we are not there is also a great benefit of the cameras. It has given us freedom to leave the farm and know the cows are being watched.
    Duane and I took off for a couple days to attend a conference. Anna was still on winter break from college and was left in charge. She gladly took on the job and handled all the daily routines while we relaxed and went to some meetings. As we visited with other farmers and ranchers, we talked crops, cattle and weather. Being a dairy farmer within a big group of beef producers, they respected that we are still milking cows and mentioned when they used to milk. As the night went on, the stories rolled and the robots were brought up. A whole table passed the phone around to watch the cows being milked, and even caught Anna walking the pens, fetching cows. We were thankful for the time to be away. The phone app connected us with home. Even while we were taking a break, we could not help but check in, reassuring us there is no place like home.
    Tina Hinchley, her husband, Duane, and their daughters, Anna and Catherine, milk 135 registered Holsteins and farm 2,500 acres of crops near Cambridge, Wis. They have been hosting farm tours for over 20 years.