A cow is not bothered by the Lely Discovery 120 Collector robotic barn cleaner at Brian Hovey’s dairy farm in Blair, Wis. Hovey started using the robot cleaner in April.
A cow is not bothered by the Lely Discovery 120 Collector robotic barn cleaner at Brian Hovey’s dairy farm in Blair, Wis. Hovey started using the robot cleaner in April. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
    BLAIR, Wis. – Avoiding labor issues and increasing the efficiency of his dairy farm prompted Brian Hovey to enter the world of robotics 10 years ago.
    “My philosophy is not to look at every pound of milk,” Hovey said. “I look at how many pounds you can get with the least input. Feeding extra protein is like buying your milk. It’s all about the bottom line and risk.”
    Hovey milks about 90 head with one Lely A3 robot on his Trempealeau County dairy farm near Blair, Wis. Efficiency ranks high on his list as he also raises steers and cash crops, and operates a milk route in addition to his dairy farm. The automation helps him keep all of those balls in the air.
    “It’s more cows than they recommend [with one robot], and it’s getting to be too many cows now,” Hovey said. “Last summer, I had about 80 head and that worked pretty well. The cows had enough visits to the robot and had respectable production. I work to make things fit into my system and meet my needs.”
    Hovey’s journey into dairy automation began in 2009, when he was struggling to keep employees to milk in his flat-barn parlor set up. In February, he sold his milking herd, but retained a group of 50 bred heifers. He began retrofitting his parlor and freestall barn, including insulating the building, for the installation of a robot. The robot was put into service in May as the heifers began to freshen.
    The cows have access to a 10-acre lot for exercise by going through a mechanical one-way gate. As they come back into the barn, a Grazeway gate directs them to either the milk pen or the feed pen. Cows that are directed to the robot also exit into the feed and stall area.
    “Using the Grazeway gate in that manner has pretty much eliminated push cows for me,” Hovey said. “The only times I have to go get cows are once in a while for a fresh heifer, a sick cow or if a transponder goes bad. That saves me a lot of time.”
    This spring, Hovey took advantage of a new piece of robotic equipment from the same company as his robots – a Discovery 120 Collector, an automatic manure vacuum, to clean the freestall aisles and help further streamline his dairy.
    “The skidsteer I used for cleaning the freestalls had over 11,000 hours on it. A new skidsteer is pretty spendy, plus I have to put a man in the seat,” Hovey said. “Purchasing the cleaner or a new skidsteer was a big expense, either way. The cleaner saves me from having to have someone in the seat.”
    Prior to the cleaner, Hovey scraped his freestall barn once a day, which he admits is less than he would have liked.
    “It was a mess, but to scrape the barn with a skidsteer, you have to move all the cows out of the barn,” Hovey said. “That disrupted the flow of the robot, which is something that I didn’t like doing, either.”
    The cleaner moves around the cows, allowing them to stay in the barn during cleaning, which Hovey sees as a big benefit.
    As part of the installation of the cleaning robot, Hovey worked with the company to map out the barn and create routes to program into the robot. Each cleaning requires the robot to run all the programmed routes, and takes about 1.5 hours. The cleaner is currently set to clean the barn six times per day. Hovey is able to override the programmed routes and operate the cleaner much like a remote control car.
    “It keeps the barn so much cleaner,” Hovey said. “The stalls are cleaner, there is less tracking of manure into them. I’d say the bedding usage has been cut in half. I only have to move the cows out of the barn once every five or six days to add new bedding.”
    Another benefit as a result of the cleaner barn floors is a reduction in foot health issues.
    The robot can collect 70 gallons of manure at a time. When it becomes full, it stops vacuuming and returns to a dump station where it empties the holding tank. It then returns to where it left off on the route it was traveling.
    Whenever the cleaner is not in use, it docks itself to a charging station. Hovey said the machine spends about 50% of the time charging and 50% cleaning.
    When the cleaner was introduced into the barn in April, the cows reacted to it; but after several months of operation, they do not seem to notice it as it moves around them.
    “The first week the cleaner was in here, the cows were nuts,” Hovey said. “It was like having a whole barn of fresh heifers.”
     Hovey admits since the robot is a relatively new product, its lifespan and maintenance needs are relatively unknown. That was a gamble he was willing to take to decrease the hours he needed to spend cleaning the barn, allowing him more time working in other areas of his businesses.
    “So far, the cleaner has definitely been worth the money,” Hovey said. “Between the value of the time saved, the decreased bedding usage, decreased disruption for milking and the better foot health, it has definitely been a good investment.”