Cows are milked three times a day in individual robotic milking stalls on the 60-stall rotary parlor at Carlson Dairy LLP June 13 near Pennock, Minn. Each stall operates on its own.
Cows are milked three times a day in individual robotic milking stalls on the 60-stall rotary parlor at Carlson Dairy LLP June 13 near Pennock, Minn. Each stall operates on its own. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE

    PENNOCK, Minn. – The storm that swept through Kandiyohi County June 11, 2017, shook the Carlson family; but such destruction provided opportunity for Carlson Dairy LLP.
    For one year, the family has operated the state’s first automated rotary milking parlor – the GEA DairyProQ – on their 1,650-cow dairy near Pennock, Minn.

    “When we got into reconstruction mode, we saw the silver lining,” Kindra Carlson said. “We were already looking at changing our milking parlor and now we could change it how we wanted.”
    Kindra and her husband, Chad, farm in partnership with Chad’s brother and wife, Carl and Kellie Carlson, and parents, Curtney and Louise Carlson.
    The family hosted the final stop on the Minnesota Milk Producer Association Summer Escape tour June 13.
    Cows are housed in a 10-row, cross-ventilated freestall barn and bedded with sand. The majority of the herd is milked in the rotary parlor three times a day – at 8 a.m., 4 p.m. and midnight. Of the 14 groups milked, two groups are fresh cows, and those animals are milked four times in 24 hours.
    The rotary parlor was built to the north of where the farm’s double-18 parlor stood; 18 stalls in the original parlor are still used for non-conforming and recently fresh cows.
    “We have a group of about 50 that don’t go in the rotary,” Carl said. “Some are claustrophobic or might have foot abscesses that make it difficult to get on and off the parlor, but most of them are just old cows.”      

    In the first-of-its-kind milking system, the automated parlor contains 60 individual robotic milking stalls. Cows step into the stalls and the unit attaches to the teats for a prep procedure followed by milking and then post dip; all occurring within the inflation liner.
    The system uses a camera, creating a 3D image, to find the teat and attach. It is setup to try attaching three times before kicking over to manual mode where an employee is notified and must attach the unit.
    “Because of that imaging, we don’t have to cull cows with poor udder conformations if they’re profitable,” Carl said.
    One revolution of the parlor takes eight minutes, meaning 300 cows can be milked in one hour with the entire herd milked in six hours.
    “We’ve found the faster it spins the better the cows load because the cows entering don’t have to wait in line for the cow ahead of her to enter the rotary,” Carl said. “They can walk at a steady pace.”
    The parlor has some downtime three times a day – two times of which are designated for a wash cycle.
    “There aren’t many fixes we can’t do while it’s spinning,” Carl said. “If one of the units breaks, we can take out the service components and work on it without shutting down the parlor.”
    Every morning, Carl reviews data received from the parlor and individual robots. He then attends to robots as needed.
    The Carlsons all receive data about the parlor and milking herd on their phones. The parlor also includes two monitors, which simulate the parlor functions with color coordination.
    “I don’t need to be going back and forth around the rotary checking on the cows in the parlor, I can do it all on my own from here,” said Carl, showing his phone and the monitors.
    From the monitors, Carl can then look at individual cows and stalls to see how many times the unit tried attaching, the milk yield, and pre- and post-dip supplies remaining, among other information.
    The automated system will serve the Carlsons well once the system is full optimized. It is currently helping them maintain a somatic cell count of 140,000.
    After a year in operation, the Carlsons all agreed one of the most challenging aspects of the new parlor was proper training for employees.
    “It takes a different person to learn how to work with all the technology,” Chad said.
    Kindra agreed.
    “People want to jump in and do it themselves, but instead we have to let the robot do the work,” she said.
    Along with the parlor, the Carlsons also built a calf barn with automated feeders in addition to an eight-row, 1,000-animal unit heifer facility.
    In the cross-ventilated calf barn, calves are grouped in pens of 24 calves with the two youngest groups only having 12 calves in the pen.
    The Carlsons have not noticed much difference in milk intake with the automated feeders, but have noticed a better social transition from calves to heifers and cows.  
    “The capital investment is great, but at the end of the day, we feel we’re getting better calves because of it,” Chad said.
    Once calves reach 5 months of age, they are moved to the heifer facility until 22-23 months old. There, they are bedded with separated solids and wear activity monitors to track heats.
    “At 5 months old, the heifers start making an S shape through the barn and through the 10 groups. We move them out 30 days before calving,” Chad said. “For managing 1,000 heifers this way, there’s nothing to it.”
    The facility mimics the barn the Carlsons built in 2012, with the addition of recessed bunks which help them feed to zero refusals while maintaining foot health.
    “We wanted to keep management in line with what we were doing so everything is identical as it was before,” Chad said.
    The timing of such upgrades was coincidental.
    Chad and Carl toured two similar parlor facilities in Canada prior to the 2017 storm.
    “They came back and were mulling over if the investment and timing of it was all worth it,” Kindra said. “When the storm came, it ended up being good timing to revamp our facilities.”
    The storm removed the roofs on the freestall barns and milking parlor, and caused other damage to the milk cow facilities. The special needs barn was flattened, as was the 3-month-old heifer barn.
    With the state-of-the-art facilities, the Carlsons are pleased with how they were able to recover from devastation and invest in their dairy’s future.
    “We’re still learning and there are still challenges, but with new technology we’ve come a long way,” Kindra said. “We’re optimizing the system for production and what’s best for the cows.”