A channel between the freestall barn and the pit, pictured in the building stage, allows manure to gravity flow to the new 1.5-million-gallon pit.
A channel between the freestall barn and the pit, pictured in the building stage, allows manure to gravity flow to the new 1.5-million-gallon pit. PHOTO SUBMITTED

    OSKALOOSA, Iowa – Although the Stam brothers have always liked dairy farming, a new facility has made the career a lot more exciting.
    “It makes you want to dairy farm rather than be physically worn out at the end of the day,” Nate Stam said.

    Three Lely A-5 robots in a new 6-row freestall barn with a new manure pit has been a welcomed upgrade for Nate and his brother, Caleb, on their 150-cow dairy near Oskaloosa. They started using the new set up April 30, 2019.
    The barn with a feed alley splitting the middle has two robots on the outside wall of one side and one robot on the outside wall of the other side. The robots have the ability to sort cows for illness, breeding or going through a footbath.
    Having robots provides the Stams with more flexibility, less physical work and shorter days.
    “They’re there on holidays and odd hours when it’s hard to get conventional help,” Caleb said. “They can occasionally break down, but they’re always there and don’t leave the farm.”
    The new milking equipment replaced a double-8 parabone parlor, remodeled from a double-4 herringbone by the Stams’ dad, Calvin,  in 2006.
    “It was pretty much a homemade parlor that was very basic,” Nate said.
    The parlor always needed two people to get the job done efficiently. The Stams hired high school students to help with labor.
    “If one person didn’t show up, it put you behind all day,” Caleb said.
    Milking in the old facility included a lot of steps in and out of the parlor.
    “We didn’t have a crowd gate in our holding pen so for 16 to 17 groups you were up and down from the pit going to get cows,” Caleb said. “It was a lot of wear and tear on your body, typically associated with dairy farmers.”
    Now, all the chores can be done by one person if needed; however, typically both brothers are on the farm every day along with part-time help from two of their nephews when they are not in school.
    Plus, the automated milking system allows the Stams to have flexibility with chores, crop farming and custom work, especially since both have young families. Nate and his wife, Valerie, have four children: Jonathan, 9, David, 7, Lucas, 5, and Nicole, 2. Caleb and his wife, Leah, have three children: Collin, 8, Maria, 5, and Ryan, 1.
    “Our kids have a great opportunity if they so choose to stay in the dairy business,” Caleb said. “It’s not nearly as stressful as our old barn was – the hours, the demands. Now there is flexibility. I just think it’s a lot more sustainable with our new facility.”
    The new facility also features automatic alley scrapers that push manure into an 8-by-8 underground channel on the east end of the barn, and it gravity flows to the 1.5 million gallon pit. Once there, sand and solids settle to the bottom and can be cleaned out when the pit is cleaned once a year.
    “It’s low maintenance and simple,” Nate said.
    Prior to this set up, the Stams scraped the manure into a small holding area and hauled it every two to three days, depending on weather.
    “Spring was always a challenge, and during summer when you have crops on the fields, finding a spot to haul was difficult,” Nate said. “This made everything much easier so we can pick our times to spread manure and not fight the weather so much. It was a huge time and labor savings.”
    After being in their new facility nearly two years, the Stams’ herd is averaging between 2.7 to 3 milkings per cow, per day. Many of the higher producing cows are going through the robots four times.
    “If it’s a high producing cow, they’re utilizing that ability (to get milked more often) which would have never happened in the old facility,” Caleb said.
    Production has also increased 15 pounds per cow per day. While the Stams recognize they are also feeding the cows to milk a little more, they feel the way they feed is more efficient.
    “It’s more tailored to each cow,” Nate said. “The cow that’s producing more milk will get more nutrients, and the cow that’s not doesn’t get as much. So, it makes it more efficient on a small scale when you don’t have different groups of cows.”
    However, the Stams experienced an adjustment period to a new way of feeding that influenced how often the cows are milked.
    For the first 10 months, cows would visit the robots often enough, but refusals – when cows would visit the robots, but it was not time to be milked yet – were at 0.5. The Stams and their equipment dealer wanted to see about two refusals per cow.
    “You want the cows coming on their own to the robot and not you going to get them,” Nate said. “It’s a balancing act.”
    After pulling energy from the bunk and feeding more in the robot in the first lactation heifers, the Stams saw the response they wanted.
    “It’s a learning curve for us and our nutritionist as well,” Caleb said.
    Pregnancy rate and reproduction has also improved due to the activity monitoring system, Caleb said.
    The cows also have more of a relaxed demeanor.
    “The cows just really seem to slow down,” Caleb said. “From an animal welfare point of view, the cows are making the choices. It takes very little effort to sort out any cow that needs attention.”
    While the Stams are now reaping the benefits of their new facility, it did not happen overnight. The brothers, who took over the farm in 2007 from their dad after he had health issues, spent nearly seven years researching every aspect of a new facility from the building to the financials. They also toured dairies and talked to many farmers during that time.
    “Anytime we were on a family vacation anywhere in the Upper Midwest, we would go find a robot barn and see what we could pick up there,” Nate said.
    And they also built with the option to expand. While it is not their intention to grow their herd, they did not want to limit that opportunity for the future.
    “We did lots of number crunching,” Nate said. “We worked with our banker, and we got real numbers from farmers who had robots, along with dealers. We put all those together and planned for worst case scenarios.”
    But what has come about has been best circumstances for the Stams.
    “It’s a huge improvement,” Nate said. “It would be hard to go back to what we were doing before. Everything is more efficient, you have flexibility to be with your family and you’re not reliant on labor. There are no downsides and all upsides. It was the best thing we ever did from my perspective.”