The robot milks each quarter individually, removing the teat cup from the quarter once it is milked out.
The robot milks each quarter individually, removing the teat cup from the quarter once it is milked out. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
    DANE, Wis. – Robots seemed to be the logical answer to the Haag family when they were looking to increase the flexibility in their lives and to solve future labor issues before they became a problem.
    Haag Dairy is home to John and Julie Haag, and their son, Josh, and his wife, Melissa, along with their two daughters, Kayleigh, 4, and Kelsey, 2. The family milks 115 cows, mostly registered Holsteins with a couple registered Guernseys near Dane, Wis. The herd is milked using two robots that were put into operation Aug. 13, retrofitted into the farm’s existing freestall barn that was built in 2006 when Josh first began buying into the farm.
    “As the girls start to grow up and start to be involved in activities, we want the flexibility to be able to be present for that stuff,” Melissa said. “We still love dairy farming and milking cows, but we were looking for ways to get that flexibility.”
    Prior to the installation of the robots, the herd was being milked three times a day in a double-6 herringbone parlor with John doing the night milking on his own.
    “Dad does that night milking by himself, and there is always that question of when is he going to decide he doesn’t want to do that anymore,” Josh said. “We didn’t want to have hired help for that milking.”
    Josh and Melissa had been discussing robots for the past five years. After talking about it with John, the Haags started touring robot facilities to get ideas.
    “It’s been a tough transition for me,” John said. “I’m not big into the technology, so it’s been a learning curve. It’s a whole new way of taking care of cows.”
    The two robots are set up in a free-flow system, with no sorting gates. The freestall barn uses a center feed alley, and all the cows are kept in one group. The barn is scraped with a skidsteer.
    “That has been an adjustment, getting used to scraping with the cows in the barn, but we are all learning and getting used to it,” Josh said.
    Three times daily, the Haags check the lists to look for cows that need to be fetched to bring to the robots.
    “We’re still really in the start-up process, so some days are better than others,” Melissa said. “With the free-flow set-up, you will have more fetch cows. But what it’s shown us is that little changes in the day, whether it’s the weather or a little difference in the feed or something going on around the farm, can really drastically change how the cow flow happens.”
    The original start-up period was hard for the Haags, but they credit the extra help they had on hand from family members, friends and the staff at Ederer Dairy Supply for helping things run as smoothly as possible.
    “We had started to run the cows through the robot stall before the start-up just to get them used to the feed,” Melissa said. “That helped some, that the cows knew there was feed there.”
    Once the robots were ready to take over the milking, the herd was divided into three groups. The extra helpers brought the cows to the robots, while the Haags stayed in the pit with the robots, working to help map the udders. The first milking took 11 hours to get all the cows through and mapped into the robot, using a joystick.
    “That was the part I wasn’t as prepared for,” Melissa said. “I knew we would be having to teach the cows how to come into this box and teach them a whole new way to get milked, but I was underestimating how long the process was going to take.”
    Josh agreed.
    “You teach the robots, and it still struggled, so you had to reteach it,” Josh said.
    After the first three days, they took the gates down and allowed cows to begin to come to the robots on their own.
    “Some cows took to it right away,” Melissa said. “They were almost running the gate down. Other cows you still have to fetch three times a day.”
    Many of the fetch cows tend to be those in later lactation, and the Haags expect them to use the robot more consistently on their own in their next lactation.
    “Some of those cows missed their peak because the transition kind of knocked them back,” Josh said. “They don’t have the pressure and drive to come in.”
    The Haags did not cull any animals during the start-up process, but they did sell cows that did not have teat placements that would work well with the robots. The Haags sell several animals for dairy replacements each month.
    “Milking with robots changes your idea of what a perfect udder is as far as what the robots like to milk,” Melissa said. “We also have some cows that would squawk in the parlor, and they do better in the robots with the quarter-milking.”
    The Haags have seen fluctuation in their somatic cell count, but said it has returned to their pre-robotic levels of under 100,000.
    “They tell you to expect a jump initially in the SCC,” Melissa said. “It’s an inflammatory response in the udder. The change for the cows is stressful. They aren’t being milked at regular intervals.”
    The Haags said one of the biggest management changes has been learning to identify mastitis when they are not inspecting the milk each milking.
    “You have to learn how to sort through and understand the computer information,” Josh said, noting they were using rumination collars prior to the robots. “You also have to learn to judge more on their behavior that you see in the barn.”
    Overall, the Haags view the implementation of robots on their farm as a positive experience. They said their cows are more calm in the freestall barns and spend more time lying down. They feel there is a benefit from the time the cows do not have to spend standing in the holding area, waiting to be milked.
    “They have a less stressful environment,” John said. “Ruminations have gone up since the transition. They are spending more time in the stalls doing what they are supposed to be doing.”