A cow stands in the robot at Dorrich Dairy. The Volds are transitioning their herd of 450 cows from being milked in a parlor to robotic milkers.
PHOTO BY ANDREA BORGERDING
A cow stands in the robot at Dorrich Dairy. The Volds are transitioning their herd of 450 cows from being milked in a parlor to robotic milkers. PHOTO BY ANDREA BORGERDING

    GLENWOOD, Minn. – As with any business, there comes a time when reinvention becomes necessary for survival in an unstable industry. The Vold family focused on that sole intention when faced with an aging facility and the future of their family farm, Dorrich Dairy.


    “If we were going to have a future, we had to recreate ourselves,” said Brad Vold, co-owner of Dorrich Dairy. “The path we were going down, it was becoming more challenging and expensive to continue operation.”
    Brad operates a 450-cow dairy with his wife, Suzanne, and brother, Greg, in Glenwood. They have been transitioning their herd of cows from being milked twice a day in a double-8 herringbone parlor to seven Lely Astronaut A4 robotic milkers since Oct. 8, 2019.
    The upgrade in equipment, technology and facilities has enabled the Volds to recreate themselves in the dairy industry as an efficient, cow-focused operation allowing them to maximize milk production.
    “We discussed this upgrade for a few years,” Greg said. “We just didn’t know when to pull the trigger.”
    Substantial improvements in retrofit designs of robotic barns spurred the Volds’ decision to start construction on the facility in April 2019.
    “It was just in the last few years that retrofitting our barn could be done fairly and effectively,” Greg said. “It really opened the door for us.”
    Today, Dorrich Dairy consists of a nine-row freestall barn with a center aisle and side feed alley dissecting the barn with three rows on the west side and six rows on the east side. The robots were added to the south end of the barn. Two robots service the cows in the three-row pen. This pen consists of early lactation cows and any lame cows. Cows can be filtered to a bedded pack area behind the robots which includes a working chute. This area is used to hold fresh cows or for veterinarian work.
    Five robotic milkers service the six-row pen. All cows exit the back of the robots. From there, the cows can be directed back to the group pen or rerouted into a 14-stall freestall pen. This area includes a small pit area with two working chutes on either side for dry off treatment.
    “We are trying to minimize disturbances with the cows when they are laying down,” Greg said. “When we need to work with cows, we reroute them to a separate area, and then they are either transferred out of the facility for dry off or routed back into the pen without disturbing all of the cows.”       
    A five-robot pen is something that sets apart the Volds’ facility from other robotic facilities and left the Volds the challenge of managing a large pen of cows. The Vold manage the six-row pen in zones with the help of a gating system designed between robots and fetch pens that can hold up to 30 cows.
    “We work with three different zones (four alleys) while fetching cows to feed the five robots,” Brad said.
    Breeding shots and vaccinations are managed in several passes through the pen to gather cows.
    “The key is patience,” Suzanne said. “I may have to do several 15-minute passes during the day versus one 45-minute block of gathering cows for shots.”
    Change in management mentality is something the Volds said they had to adapt to in order to be successful in the new facility. Considering a high producing cow’s future in the herd because of her time consumption in the robot is now a factor in efficiency.
    “If they aren’t adapting to the robot or are extremely slow, those are mindsets we have to make a shift on,” Suzanne said. “A cow isn’t working here for completely different reasons.”
    An unexpected shift the Volds did not predict was reverting to a more individual cow focus. What they reference as a tiestall mentality is where the data gathered by the robotic milkers on each cow has allowed them to manage individual cows based on their needs including feeding, milk production and health. The incorporation of new technology has allowed them to manage on a cow-by-cow basis versus adjusting by group of cows.
    “We’ve integrated technology into a tiestall barn mentality of management,” Brad said. “Which we are finding out is really good for the cow.”
    Greg agreed.
    “We are back to individual cow focus again, and with this technology, we can do that efficiently and effectively,” Greg said.
    The Volds have now been able to keep the labor source within the family in addition to a full-time feed manager. Labor challenges were a driving force in the Volds’ decision to install robotic milkers. Previously, lack of reliable labor among other challenges was keeping them from milking three times a day in their parlor.
    The goal now is to build the number of cows milking to 410 then keep cow numbers the same and expand by production. The Volds culled 12 cows last September prior to starting in the robots. Once the robots started milking in October, 24 more cows were culled. They included cows that were too far out to dry off and others that were not transitioning. Culling animals has been minimal since.
    Still in the process of transition, the Volds are quick to recognize the importance of having the support and knowledge of their construction crew and automatic milking system team for walking them through the transition process.
    “Our nutritionist and vet also have experience working with robot herds so we are constantly learning from them,” Greg said.
    Even with the ongoing transition and challenges of shifting management mentality, the Volds said they have never looked back.
    “It was never even a discussion,” Brad said.
    Greg added that after that initial introduction into the robotic milkers, they began thinking of all the hours and people they were utilizing just in milking 380 cows.
    “Now we have a couple hours in the morning and a few hours at night,” Greg said. “That leaves time for us to focus on things other than milking.”