Rich Olson points out average daily production per cow, which hovers between 94-96 pounds a day on his family’s dairy near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
Rich Olson points out average daily production per cow, which hovers between 94-96 pounds a day on his family’s dairy near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    STURGEON BAY, Wis. – When considering how to make their farm more attractive to future generations, the Olsons decided fewer cows was the answer. Embarking on a journey that would make farming easier and provide a more balanced lifestyle, brothers Rich and Eric Olson and Eric’s wife, Julaine, downsized their registered Holstein herd from 100 cows to 60 and put in a robot at the end of 2013.
    “We had to find an easier way to do the work,” Rich said. “The robot was my idea. I had to talk Eric and Julaine into it.”
    Rich and Eric are the fifth generation on the Olson Family Farm, a Sturgeon Bay dairy that was started in 1872 by the Olsons’ Norwegian immigrant ancestors. Rich returned to the farm in 1990 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in dairy science. He and Eric, who attended the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course, formed an LLC in 1994. They were milking 100 cows twice a day in a 100-stall tiestall barn. When the physical exertion of milking began taking its toll, the family knew a change was necessary.
    “Our first thought was to put in two robots and increase to 120 cows,” Rich said. “But then feed storage, manure storage and calf housing were going to be a problem and would’ve required modifications. Adding 20 cows is not a big deal for most farms – here it changes everything.”
    For nearly seven years, the Olson trio has relied on one Lely A-4 robot to do the milking, resulting in positives for both cows and people. After putting in the robot, production went up 10 pounds per cow. Cows were milking 85 pounds per day in the tiestall barn and now average 94 to 96 pounds per cow per day. Herd average climbed from 28,000 to nearly 30,000. Cell count is better, too, and the farm is seeing less mastitis. The switch to robotic milking allowed for more frequent milking of cows without added labor as cows average 2.8 trips through the robot daily.
    Rich said labor savings are tremendous. By putting in a robot, the Olsons eliminated their full-time employee and drastically reduced work hours.
    “It took 22.5 manhours per day milking 100 cows in a tiestall barn,” Rich said. “With a robot, it takes only 6-6.5 manhours. The robot saved wear and tear on my body, but the best benefit is the flexibility robots provide.”
    Flexible schedules have allowed the farm’s owners to attend every one of their kids’ sporting events. It also helps with cropping as they no longer have to shut down field work at 4 p.m. to start evening chores. Now, only one person is needed back at the barn.
    Rather than building a new robotic barn, the Olsons adapted current facilities, installing the robot in an existing freestall barn that cows were already familiar with. Cow comfort improved with the switch to freestall housing. When adding the robot, the Olsons tore out stalls while modifying others and incorporated a holding area for cows when waiting to use the robot.
    They also installed headlocks for breeding and herd health checks, along with sprinklers and different waterers and upgraded mattresses while also adding a robotic alley scraper. A viewing window of the robot allows for observation of the machine without disrupting animals. In addition, the Olsons applied for a grant to install timed LED lighting in the freestall barn.
    “We had long-day lighting in the tiestall barn and would like to go back to that,” Rich said.
    Cows wear RFID collars for heat detection and health monitoring – features the Olsons use heavily.
    “This information is very important to us,” Rich said. “It helps us focus on the cows that need our attention most and informs us of any problems.”
    The tiestall barn is not obsolete and is used for transitioning fresh and dry cows.
    “It’s convenient for us to milk these animals manually instead of sending them through the robot,” Rich said. “It gives us a chance to get 2-year-olds accustomed to being milked before learning the robot. This setup also works well for fresh cows. We don’t have to pasteurize the colostrum and can feed it fresh.”
    Cows preparing to go dry spend the last few days of their lactation in the tiestall barn. Here, cows are taken off TMR and fed dry hay to reduce energy in the diet.  
    When it comes to the fields, the Olsons have their hands in many crops. From corn, alfalfa and winter wheat to green bean and beet, the Olsons farm 1,200 acres and do a lot of cash cropping.
    “We sell a lot of our corn to big farms for silage,” Rich said. “It’s additional income. If we have extra standing hay, we’ll sell that too. Last year, we had lots of winter kill, but that’s why you diversify. If one area falls short, another area can compensate.”
    The Olsons contract with two canning companies to grow a set number of acres of green bean and fancy red beet each year. Growing green bean has been a lifelong endeavor for the family while beet came on the scene for the farm 20 years ago.
    “We plant the beans, and the canning company harvests them,” Eric said. “For the beets, they do both the planting and harvesting; we just prepare the field.”  
    Forty acres are devoted to beet. Planted at the end of May and harvested in October, the beets are harvested when they measure ¾ of an inch to 2 inches in size.
    “They have to fit in little jars; therefore, the beets are not very big,” Eric said.
    There are 220 acres dedicated to green bean. Green bean is a 60-day crop planted July 1 and harvested Sept. 1. The field is then no-till planted with winter wheat.
    The Olsons have been selling small squares of straw to the specialty market for 10 years with horse owners being one of their biggest clients.
    Focused on cows and cash crops, the Olsons have realized success through diversification. By expanding their product offerings, this family does not have to rely solely on its milk check to make a living.
    “Farms that only milk cows have struggled,” Rich said. “If you’re involved with a few different things, something’s going to work.”
    Cutting back on cows and installing a robot has lightened the Olsons’ workload while helping the farm remain relevant for years to come.
    “We’re very happy with our decision,” Rich said. “It would be hard to go back to where we were.”