The Spokes and Topels milk their 500-cow herd with eight robots on the dairy near Waterloo, Wisconsin. 
The Spokes and Topels milk their 500-cow herd with eight robots on the dairy near Waterloo, Wisconsin. PHOTO SUBMITTED

    WATERLOO, Wis. – New robots have come to Waterloo.
    Using DeLaval’s robotic milking technology – the VMS V300 – Jeff and Jenny Spoke, who farm with Jenny’s parents, Bob and Chris Topel, are more than satisfied with the new technology. The family installed the latest in robotics to automate the milking of their 500-cow herd last summer, retrofitting eight robots into current facilities.

    “We had an old parlor that needed updating, but we didn’t want to build a new one,” Jeff said. “Bob had talked robots for a long time, so we decided to go that route.”
    The startup date for the first four robots was Aug. 22, 2019.
    “We focused on getting one barn up and running first,” Jeff said. “It was a lot of animals to train so we transitioned one building at a time. We switched everyone in the first barn to robots all at once, something we wouldn’t recommend in hindsight. In the second barn, we trained smaller groups, which worked much better.”
    By Oct. 1, 2019, the farm’s single-exit double-8 herringbone parlor was retired.
    “Our parlor was not very cow-friendly, and we pushed it pretty hard,” Jeff said. “It was tough to get a group through in less than an hour. We milked three times a day and were milking almost around the clock. Since switching to robots, injuries have pretty much disappeared. Cows don’t hurt themselves, and foot health is way better. We rarely pick up a foot now. Cows aren’t standing in the holding area which has been really beneficial.”
    Jeff and Jenny teamed up with Jenny’s parents 20 years ago. But the 100-cow farm in Lake Mills was not big enough to support the two couples. Landlocked and on the edge of city limits, expansion at that location was not an option. In 2001, they purchased their current farm in Waterloo and have been in growth mode ever since, hitting their sweet spot at 500 cows. The Spokes and Topels also farm 600 acres.
    When preparing for robots, the family turned a barn used for heifer housing into a robot barn, adding on a new half to get all buildings lined up evenly. They then flipflopped heifers and dry cows into a barn previously used for milk cows.  Each barn has four robots with two robots per pen.
    “The updated robotics allow us to put cows and heifers into the milking string without needing to train teat positions,” Jeff said.   
    A 3D camera helps locate teats, making it easy for the robot to learn a cow’s udder and teat placement. This results in faster attachment regardless of udder and teat style. Milking speed is also increased as the robot automatically adjusts pulsation setting so cows are milked according to individual needs and capacity. When it comes to prepping, a separate transparent cup individually cleans and stimulates each teat.
    Independent arms for each teat cup allow quarters to be milked individually and the machine to be removed one quarter at a time. The Spokes like that the robot can be sized to each cow and features five settings for body length to restrict movement during milking.
    “Cows are happier and healthier, and we feel there’s a lot of potential in the herd for increased milk production,” Jeff said. “Old cows are going to last in this setup. They pick a stall close to the robot, get up when it’s time to milk, eat, then lay back down. Nobody is bothering them.”
    Milk has already climbed several pounds per cow, going from 80 pounds in the parlor to between 82-88 pounds in the robot. Cows are averaging 2.6 milkings per day – a number the Spokes are hoping to push higher as time goes on. Fresh cows are encouraged to visit the robot more often in the first five days to make sure none of them fall off the wagon at the start of their lactation. Much to the surprise of Jeff and Jenny, this summer’s sweltering heat did not cause a drop in milk.
    “Cows didn’t have to stand together in the holding area which I’m sure helped,” Jenny said. “In the past, we would lose 4 or more pounds per cow during long stretches of heat.”
    Labor savings for the dairy are immense, and the Spokes cite this as one of the biggest benefits of switching to robots.  
    “We used to have 10-12 part-time and full-time employees,” Jenny said. “Since installing robots, we’ve reduced labor by almost 300 paid hours per week.”
    Jeff agreed.
    “We didn’t see (labor) getting better,” he said. “Not many people want to milk cows full time, so we were always finding and training new people. We needed to upgrade so it was a matter of what system to choose. Money saved on labor will eventually pay for the robots.”
    Northcrest Dairy retained two full-time people. A former milker for 12 years, Kari Steindorf now feeds and beds cows and helps with fieldwork. Jake Heiman, who used to be the farm’s feeder, oversees the robots. He does the morning fetch and robot maintenance along with other areas of maintenance on the farm. Heiman also owns 40 Jersey cows in the primarily Holstein herd. Jeff and Jenny’s kids – Ian, 14, Marissa, 12, Malcolm, 9, and Finn, 6 – also help on the farm.
    In addition to adding onto one of the freestall barns, the robot renovation included a new office area, milkhouse and crossway between barns for moving cattle. The farm also added an automatic feed pusher and alley scrapers. Unlike many robotic barns, the cows at Northcrest Dairy do not wear activity monitors. Relying on synchronization reproduction protocols was something the family did not want to change.
    Transitioning to robots was an adjustment in management style as the Spokes learned to rely on information the robots provide about each milking.
    “We get a tremendous amount of data from the reports,” Jeff said. “Daily milk weights, milking speed, conductivity, how many times she’s going to the robot – it’s all there for us to look at for each individual cow.”
    At 65 cows per robot, Jeff said there is a lot of idle time. Therefore, the farm has flexibility and room to grow to fulfill the robot’s 70-cow capacity.
    “The farm is so quiet now,” Jeff said. “There was always commotion before with people coming and going. Robots are almost like going back to the traditional way of doing things when you just had morning and night chores and the farm shut down in between.”
    The Spokes are also loving the flexibility robots provide.
    “We can go to our kids’ sporting events or even help coach because we don’t have to milk at 5 p.m.,” Jeff said. “We can also make hay when we want. The robots have made life better for us and the cows.”