Cows are milked with robotic milkers at the Youngrens’ dairy near Pennock, Minn. The Youngrens began using the freestall barn and milking robots in June 2016. 
Cows are milked with robotic milkers at the Youngrens’ dairy near Pennock, Minn. The Youngrens began using the freestall barn and milking robots in June 2016. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
    PENNOCK, Minn. – Every dairy farmer develops a way to best manage their herd through facilities, technology and the execution of responsibilities. For the Youngrens, they have found an ideal model with new housing and automation.
    “This is a cow’s world,” said Mike Youngren, looking down the feed lane of his family’s six-row freestall barn.
    Mike and his brother, Dean, and son, Trevin, built a 148- by 648-foot freestall barn, equipped with seven milking robots, for their 430-cow dairy herd in Kandiyohi County near Pennock, Minn.
    The cross-ventilated barn has three milking pens – two for mature cows and one for first-calf heifers – in addition to a fourth pen for dry cows and close-up heifers.
    Within the milking pens, each has two Lely Astronaut milking robots. The seventh robot is located in the dry cow pen, but is accessible to the first-calf heifer pen.
    “We built the facilities with room for eight robots and 500 cows,” Trevin said. “When we do get to that point, we’ll have to build a pen for the dry cows because we’ll use their current pen for another milking group.”
    For the last two years, the Youngrens have internally grown their herd from 300 cows and continue doing so.
    “Dad started this herd in 1952 with seven heifers,” Dean said. “Today, our herd traces back to those seven animals. We A.I. everything and save our replacements.”
    Once cows calve, they are first milked in a small, four-unit parlor located at the end of the pen. The parlor is also used for treating cows and at the time of dry off.
    For fresh cows, this allows the Youngrens to collect colostrum and monitor the animals for any health problems.
    By day three, her somatic cell count is tested and then she is moved to either the first-calf heifer pen or mature cow pens with robots.
    “We use drovers lanes from the calving pen to the robots so the cows aren’t walking through the freestall pens,” Dean said. “This also lets them walk by the robots where they are trained to go inside.”
    Behind each robot is a set of eight freestalls. Cows are diverted to the section of stalls if they are triggered at the robots for breeding, pregnancy checks and other reasons as to not disturb the rest of the herd.
    Activity monitors record each cow’s reproduction, rumination and other health traits, which the Youngrens can view to understand why the cow was sorted from the rest of the herd.
    “Sorting gates keep the collect cows in there and they have to go through the robot to get out,” Mike said. “It’s an easy way to manage cows with one person.”
    Dean agreed.
    “Of all the pieces of this barn, those stalls were the main thing we wanted,” he said.
    With this setup, the Youngrens notice any deviations and put the cows on a health watch list.
    “When we know which cows need attention, that’s the biggest benefit of this system,” Trevin said.
    Mike agreed.
    “Our goal is to change the cows’ routine as little as possible,” he said. “Even the smallest change affects their visits to the robot and production.”
    Three months prior to using the new facility, the Youngrens began using the activity monitors.
    “The technology is a piece of cake,” Dean said. “We started using the monitors for breeding, and it’s all been relatively simple to use and an easy format to understand.”
    With the implementation of this tracking system, as well as the seamless way to sort cattle, the Youngrens have drastically improved their pregnancy rate from 20 percent to 32 percent.
    The new facilities have also aided in on-farm efficiency with the least amount of labor. The Youngrens rely on three full-time employees, and an additional one during times of fieldwork.
    “Labor was pretty much the driving factor when we looked at updating our facilities and deciding to put up another parlor or go towards robots,” Dean said.     
    “We’re still busy doing other things, but we know the cows are always being milked.”
    Previously, the Youngrens were milking their herd in a double-10 parlor. The herd was housed in a two-row freestall barn, which quickly became overcrowded as the family increased their herd and planned for the larger freestall barn.
    The Youngrens took a year to develop their building plans, and then constructed the facility throughout the winter so it was operational by June 2016.
     Deciding to upgrade was not a decision the Youngrens made quickly. They toured several robotic dairies and found a design best fit for their needs.
    “Since we were kids and our dad was farming, we’ve looked for opportunities,” Mike said. “You find something someone else is doing really well, and you come back to your farm and see what changes you could make for the better.”
    While the Youngrens dabbled with industry advancements in their old facilities, the recent upgrades are far surpassing the Youngrens’ expectations.
    “Technology isn’t new to us,” Trevin said. “We had milk meters, tags and alley scrapers, but that technology was 20 years old.”
    Mike agreed.
    “Cow comfort has more than doubled since we moved into here,” he said, highlighting the use of sand bedding and reducing white line occurrences.
    If the Youngrens had updated their facilities sooner, they would have built another parlor. By taking the time to explore options and work with a strong network of individuals for support, the Youngrens are pleased with decisions they made to better their dairy farm.
    “Everything has worked well for us, but we’re still cautiously looking over our shoulders, waiting for something to go wrong,” Trevin said. “The barn works great. So far, it’s been really nice for both the people and the cows.”