Mitchell Reitsma explains the information each robot and activity monitor collects Oct. 16 at his family’s dairy near Sauk Centre, Minn.
Mitchell Reitsma explains the information each robot and activity monitor collects Oct. 16 at his family’s dairy near Sauk Centre, Minn. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE

    SAUK CENTRE, Minn. – Paul and Carolyn Reitsma were at a crossroads in their dairying career. Their two sons expressed interest in returning home to the farm, but the dairy as it was – 100 cows in a tiestall barn – could not support three families.
    “We knew we had to add more cows,” Paul said. “And reality is the horror stories hired help can be. We wanted to do more, but keep it in the family.”
     The Reitsmas with three of their six children – Katie, 23, Joe, 21, and Mitchell, 20 – began milking cows with four DeLaval VMS milking system V300 robots May 20 on their Stearns County dairy farm near Sauk Centre, Minn.

    Today, the family runs 220 cows through the robots with the system having the capability to milk upwards of 300 animals.
    The cross-ventilated barn is designed with 265 free stalls; all of which have access to any of the four robots. On the northeast side of the barn, a 17-stall freestall area is designated for fresh cows. These cows must go through one robot and then are redirected to the fresh pen with activity collars and smart gates.
    “I feed three feedings of colostrum to every calf, so it’s very important we collect that,” Carolyn said. “Each fresh cow is kept in that pen for two milkings.”
    A hospital pen is directly south of the fresh pen, and includes a bedded pack and headlocks for manual milking. Those cows, too, have access to one robot and then are redirected to the bedded pack.
    Every family member has an active role on the farm.
    Mitchell manages the milking herd while also finishing his last year at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn. He keeps track of animal health data and monitors the milking information coming from the robots. Joe takes care of all the feeding and works part time off the farm at Belgrade Co-op in Belgrade, Minn.
    Paul oversees the dairy and feeds the cattle when Joe is not available, and Carolyn works with all the calves and youngstock.
    Katie returned home following college graduation to help the family transition into the new facilities. On a day-to-day basis, she works with the cows and keeps them cycling through the robots.
    “We want to make sure everyone has a role here, and they take that role seriously and do their best at it,” Paul said.
    Even Paul and Carolyn’s older daughters are at the farm when the family needs the extra labor. Both Renae and Christine frequently visit the dairy to help, and Michelle is the family’s veterinarian.
    With all hands on deck and the use of technology to milk the cows, the Reitsmas’ time spent dairy farming looks different.
    The robots provide more time for the family to complete field work without being interrupted to milk the cows, put a greater emphasis on cow health and attend events off the farm.
    “Our time is a lot more flexible, and it’s more efficient work,” Joe said. “Dad doesn’t have to stop whatever he’s doing to start chores. We can all do more now.”
    Mitchell agreed.
    “This is a whole different approach to dairy farming,” he said. “We’re not as hands-on with the cows. It’s more troubleshooting based on what we see on the computer.”
    When the Reitsmas decided to upgrade their facilities to accommodate more cows, robots were a relatively easy decision.
    In reviewing their options, the financial cost of a parlor and needing to milk three times a day did not vary much from putting in four robots.
    “We didn’t want the next generation to go through the wear and tear our bodies have been through [milking cows],” Carolyn said. “But, if at any point they said no they didn’t want to milk cows, this wouldn’t have happened.”
    Paul agreed.
    “We also could’ve updated the tiestall barn,” he said. “The reality was it was going to be too much for Mitchell, and Joe didn’t have an interest in milking cows in that facility. Plus, we would’ve stuck money into an old facility. There’s no looking back with what we’ve done.”
    The robots are the latest design from the company, and have the capability of milking 75 cows per day, with the use of 3D camera imaging for accurate and quick teat attachment.
    Paul especially likes the design of the robot rooms. The rooms are built similar to a parlor pit. The Reitsmas are at eye level with the machines and cows.
    “If we needed to, we can override the system and attach the units manually,” Paul said. “And, with us able to stand underneath the robot, working on it is easy as it’s all accessible.”
    But, arriving at such a fluent workflow did not come without hiccups for the Reitsmas.
     Before the barn was functioning, the family was already growing their herd. Last spring, they switched 60 cows in the 90-stall tiestall barn twice a day for milking.
    When the herd was introduced to the new milking system, the entire family and close friends pushed the animals through the robots; it took the cows about a week to adjust.
    To add to the chaos, Carolyn calved in 10 cows that same week.
    Over the past five months, the herd has rebounded from the transition in terms of milk quality and pounds of milk, and the Reitsmas are looking forward to seeing the full potential of their dairy.
    “The genetics are here. The facilities are here,” Paul said. “There’s no reason we can’t start to do better with the cows and reach 100 pounds.”
    As the proclaimed cowman of the family, Mitchell is grateful for the steps his parents took for him and his siblings to be able to dairy farm.
    “Our parents made this investment for us and our dreams,” Mitchell said. “They’ve put in an unbelievable amount of work so we can have the opportunity to do what they have done for the past 30 years.”
    For the future of Reit-Way Dairy as a family farm, the Reitsmas could not be happier.
    Mark Klaphake contributed to this article.