The Ahlgren family – (front, from left) Jacob, Henry, Norah and Olivia; (back row, from left) Phillip, Matthew, Sarah and Rick – milk 160 cows on their dairy farm in Meeker County near Darwin, Minnesota. This past summer, the family began using milking robots and an automated feeding system to help manage their herd.
The Ahlgren family – (front, from left) Jacob, Henry, Norah and Olivia; (back row, from left) Phillip, Matthew, Sarah and Rick – milk 160 cows on their dairy farm in Meeker County near Darwin, Minnesota. This past summer, the family began using milking robots and an automated feeding system to help manage their herd.

    DARWIN, Minn. – When Rick and Sarah Ahlgren think of their dairy farm, one word comes to mind: family.
    In an effort to keep family a focus of the enterprise now and into the future, the couple recently installed robotic milking systems and an automated feeding system on their 160-cow dairy in Meeker County near Darwin.

    “Originally, this was my dad and I’s idea,” Rick said. “We wanted to keep the family farm without all the constant labor or schedule pressure. This all came about after eight years of touring, dreaming and researching, and we finally pulled the trigger.”
    The Ahlgrens and their children – Phillip, 13, Matthew, 11, Jacob, 9, Olivia, 7, Henry, 6, and Norah, 4 – use three Lely A5 milking robots, three Discovery 120 Collectors and the Vector Feeding System with a kitchen to manage their dairy herd.
    The lactating herd is housed in a 180-stall cross-ventilated barn where two heifer lots once stood. Stalls are waterbeds bedded with chopped corn stalks or straw, depending on what is available.
    Each cow has the option of using any of the three robots which are located on the east side of the barn. The robots are specifically designed to catch and sort fresh and special needs cows into a small pen that is adjacent to far-off and close-up dry cow pens and separate from the lactating herd.
    “Our dry cows were on an outside lot and in a loafing shed. With winter and ice, calving outside, we knew that having the dry cows in the freestall barn was a non-negotiable,” Rick said. “On a daily basis of training cows, drying cows up, it’s perfect. And, the feeding system can fine tune the ration for them.”
    The feed system is installed on the far east end of the dairy barn. Nearly every hour, the mixing and feeding robot scans the feed bunks of the lactating and dry cow pens, and delivers an appropriate ration based on the amount of feed available to the cows at the time.
    Unlike some automated systems that use a silo setup to store feed, the Ahlgrens opted for the kitchen that uses a concrete slab to store small amounts of feedstuffs in a grid system.
    “Namely, for ease of loading and maintenance, we decided to put in the kitchen with the grabber,” Rick said. “We have several Harvestores, and I didn’t want the hassle and maintenance of a silo on a daily basis. For us, filling bunkers and piles is a lot quicker.”
    The Ahlgrens broke ground on their construction project in November 2019. By July 30 this year, the family was milking in the new facility.  
    Rick and his father, David, first considered automation almost a decade ago when they attended the inaugural Precision Dairy Conference and Expo in Rochester. They spent the following years deciding how the dairy could best benefit from the incorporation of technology.
    In 2017, David passed away in a farm-related accident, leaving Rick and Sarah to decide the farm’s future.
    “I think he’d be really proud of you and this,” Sarah said. “Dad liked to get chores done and move onto other things for the farm. He would love having this but would say this is (Rick’s) building.”
    David’s passing sped up a succession plan for the Ahlgrens. In the summer of 2018, Rick and Sarah took over the dairy assets of the farm as Rick’s uncles continued the cash crop enterprise.
    The couple and their family were milking in a double-12 parlor with the help of three part-time high school employees. Cows were housed in a freestall barn built in the 1970s that was in need of repair to improve cow comfort.
    “We wanted something different, but we weren’t expecting to do this new build this soon,” Rick said.
    Yet, when the couple priced their options for improvement ¬– a new barn and retaining the use of the parlor; a new barn and robots; and a new barn and robots with the feeding system – the choice was clear.
    “We broke it out to see our options and what the upfront cost would be,” Rick said. “This was more efficient, and we could cash flow it. We decided to do it all up front, so we have the end goal right away, and we don’t have to go through this process again in a year or two.”  
    Sarah agreed.
    “This is better for us, the cows and our hired help,” she said.
    Now, the family begins their days around 6 a.m. Rick and his five oldest children and one hired employee start chores by fetching any cows, cleaning the stalls and filling the kitchen with feed for the day. They also feed the calves which are housed in a separate facility.
    While the Ahlgrens have only used their new setup for a few months, they are pleased with the results. Namely, how well the herd has adapted and the flexibility it has provided for the family.
    On average, each cow visits the milking robots 2.9 times per day.
    “We didn’t have to lay off any of the high school kids, and we’re not relying on our kids to be out here morning and then again the afternoon to help with milking and related chores,” Rick said. “It really frees us up on a daily basis.”
    But automation is not fool-proof, Rick said.
    He has received a few calls regarding technical glitches that needed his attention throughout the day.
    “It’s really hit or miss. Sometimes I’ll have to get up three times the same night,” Rick said. “It’s like having small children and not getting a decent night of sleep. Going into this thinking you’re going to get a good night sleep is not going to happen.”
    The Ahlgrens are hopeful their new setup will provide more opportunities to diversify the farm, remodel the old facilities for better calf and heifer housing, and create a more positive experience of dairying for their young family.
     “This should put us in a better position than what the other barn could ever give us, even with the added debt initially,” Rick said. “And, it is something we feel good about the public seeing what modern dairy farming is all about and how the cows are taken care of.”