A cow completes milking as another walks into the robot June 1 at Aaron Ruther’s dairy farm near Perham, Minnesota. The cows have been milked with the robots since Sept. 28, 2021.
A cow completes milking as another walks into the robot June 1 at Aaron Ruther’s dairy farm near Perham, Minnesota. The cows have been milked with the robots since Sept. 28, 2021. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE

    PERHAM, Minn. – Aaron Ruther has had his eyes on robotic milking systems for quite some time. And now, with the investment a part of his farming operation, it is exactly what he needed to make the one-man dairy practical.

    “I was sold on robots a few years ago,” Ruther said. “Help is hard to find here with the factories in town. With the robots, life has gotten a lot better.”
    Ruther milks 210 cows with three DeLaval VMS V300 robots in a 4-row, guided-flow freestall barn. The dairyman began using his new setup Sept. 28, 2021, at his dairy farm in Otter Tail County near Perham.
    “It’s still a lot of work though, but it’s more manageable,” Ruther said.
    Ruther is in the barn around 5 a.m. every day to monitor the herd and bring up fetch cows, if any. The guided-flow system, also called milk-first, ensures the cattle have an opportunity at the milking robot prior to the feed bunk and back into the pen for laying time.
    “My biggest request was that I didn’t want to push cows,” Ruther said. “It’s really nice there are not many fetch cows with this setup. Here, my mornings are more relaxed. There’s no rush to get in the barn and start milking, and there’s no stress getting the cows milked.”
    To move through the barn, cows leave the stalls and enter a permission gate. At that gate, they are either granted access to a commitment pen where they will wait for the milking robot to become available or they will be rejected and not able to be milked. This is based on data the technology collects on each cow while using the robot.
    Following the use of the robot, cows are then sorted again. Through a gate, they will either be admitted to the feed lane and able to return to the stalls or sorted back to the commitment pen if they registered as an incomplete milking.
    “With this system, the transition for the cows was nice,” Ruther said.
    On the morning of the transition, Ruther milked the 160-cow herd in his worn-out double-6 herringbone parlor across the road. After the herd was milked, he trucked them to the new facility and began running the cows through the robots to simply get them used to the technology.
    By evening, he began using the robots to milk the cows.
    “There were a bunch of people who helped me and stayed through the night to make sure the herd was adjusting,” Ruther said.
    Planning for that moment was nearly two years in the making.
    Ruther first began by touring other robotic dairies, mostly those in Stearns County. Construction on the facility began in spring soon after the ground thawed.
    “It was so windy,” Ruther said. “The barn has one big truss, so we had to pick a day that we could put it up without it breaking.”
    The total size of the naturally-ventilated barn is 298- by 98-feet. It includes automatic alley scrapers, and repurposed stalls and headlocks from the old freestall barn. The facility also includes some space for bedding storage on the north end.
    “Overall, the building process went really well,” Ruther said. “Using the farm’s stalls and headlocks were always a part of the plan. We purchased them a few years ago, and they’re still good for a while yet.”
    The dairyman did have to rework his design and plans when he was faced with rising costs and limited availability of supplies. It was an unexpected change of plans.
    “Supplies kept climbing, and we were buying as fast as we could, the lumber and steel,” Ruther said. “It was a hard time for any company to fulfill orders.”
    He built the barn about 20 feet shorter than what was originally intended and saved about $40,000 by doing so.
    Ruther also installed a security camera system so he can monitor most areas of the barn from his office.
    While the robots have been up and running for nearly nine months, there is more work to complete on the facility. Ruther plans to install a sprinkler system over the feed alley this summer.
    “It’s really surreal,” Ruther said. “These cows came from an outdated barn, and now we’re seeing them have more laying time and the lighting is better. And now, I’m able to do a better job managing the herd and that’s what I have to do if I want to succeed.”
    When Ruther purchased the herd from his dad, Mike, eight years ago, he was doing all the breeding, raising the youngstock and managing every aspect of the dairy.
    Soon after, Ruther purchased heifers to reach his current herd size. He also partnered with a close friend to raise his heifer calves for the first 90 days. He also works with an A.I. technician. These management changes have allowed Ruther to focus on other needed tasks around the farm, such as routine trimming for improved hoof health.
    And, with the automation, he is able to spend more time with his four children – Madison, Brock, Ellyana and Journey.
    “Before, it was always a fight to get the kids to help with chores,” Ruther said. “Now, chores take 1.5 hours, and we can do them before or after any of their activities.”
    In the short time Ruther has been in the facility with the new technology, he has seen his reproduction and production improve and overall herd health in a better state.
    “This year is a transition year for us,” Ruther said. “We’re seeing these improvements, but we don’t have goals set yet for where we want to be. I’m 40 and that really gives me the time to invest in my dairy and this facility.”