A cow is milked by one of the two robots in the facility the Reiters and Fessendens started using in September 2020. 
A cow is milked by one of the two robots in the facility the Reiters and Fessendens started using in September 2020. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA

    ELGIN, Minn. – When Craig and Cathy Reiter sold their milking herd in 2011, they thought the dairy chapter of their life had ended.
    After a nine-year hiatus, the couple is back in the dairy business. This time with a renewed enthusiasm as they partner with their daughter and son-in-law, Brenda and Sam Fessenden, milking 120 cows with two robots on their farm near Elgin.
    The families built a new facility with two Lely robots and a three-row barn with 110 stalls. Both robots are situated on the north side of the barn with cows entering from the east and exiting straight to the west.

    “We liked the straight-in-a-line design for cow flow purposes,” Sam said. “It also reduced the foot print of the building and helped save costs.”
    They sacrificed a few stalls to create a larger area around the milking units.
    “We wanted a lot of space around our robots so timid cows would come up, and they do,” Sam said.
    The stalls are bedded with sand and the barn is naturally ventilated with fans and sprinklers for optimum comfort in the warmer months.
    Having bought cows from three farms, the Reiter and Fessendens’ herd is now milking about 87 pounds of milk per day on an average of three milkings. Fresh cows and high producers are visiting the milking units up to six times per day.
    “I liked when we had steers, but it is a lot of fun to have the dairy back,” Brenda said about her home farm.  
    Brenda and Sam, who met while at graduate school at the University of Minnesota, are the ones who brought up the idea of milking cows. Both had completed their education – Brenda with a master’s in animal science and Sam with a doctorate in dairy nutrition – and were working out-of-state for companies in the industry; however, they each felt a pull to have their own dairy.
    “I probably wouldn’t have sought out dairying on my own, but a farm is the best place to raise kids, and in life you have to do what you like,” said Sam, who grew up on a dairy farm in central New York.
    When the two couples first talked about the possibility of starting the milking pump again, Craig and Cathy were raising steers and crop farming. Craig jokingly asked, “Are you nuts?” However, Craig and Cathy knew they wanted to help the next generation get started in the dairy business.
    “There’s money in milking cows if you manage it right and do it right,” he said. “They helped with the bull calves for two years before we started milking again so we knew we worked well together. They did a good job and knew cattle so we figured, what is the downside?”
    All four individuals were clear on their milking facility preference.
    “It was robots or nothing for both families,” Brenda said. “We wanted to do it this way or not at all.”
    Not having to dedicate set hours of the day for milking allows them to have flexibility in their lifestyles. For Craig and Cathy, they did not want to go back to the twice-a-day milking schedule they had in their earlier dairying days while in their tiestall facility. And they wanted the next generation to have flexibility, too.
    “They have (a 1-year-old daughter) Hannah so they like to eat at 6:30-7 p.m.,” Craig said. “So they’re done and gone before that, and I can be done if I wanted to be too.”
    Plus, it allows for focus on other areas of the farm outside of milking.
    “When everything is running well and I’m putting in minimal time of actually doing chores in the robot barn, there’s more time to do other projects or pay a little more attention to calves or another area,” Sam said.
    Brenda agreed.
    “When Sam and Dad are doing fieldwork, I can come in and do robot chores and it’s easy,” Brenda said. “If we had a parlor, we wouldn’t be able to shift our people around. We would have to stop more projects to come in to the barn and milk.”
    Along with flexibility, the families wanted reliable labor.
    “If we wanted a break, then we would have to have milkers and help,” Craig said. “We hear from people with parlors a lot that they can’t find help. The robots might break down but other than that they’re here 24/7. Any smaller amount of trouble we’ve had with them in the first year is minimal compared to trying to keep milkers here at this size.”
    The Fessendens and Reiters took time to research what they wanted in their new facility, and toured about 10 other robotic dairies before completing their own in September 2020. For the first week, about 20 family members and friends helped get cows through the robots in three scheduled shifts. In their opinion, the startup was not as bad as a few of the stories other farmers shared with them.
    “I got more sleep in that first week than I thought I would,” Sam said.
    Craig was happy robots were attaching milking units and not him.
    “When you bring in a new heifer (to be milked), she’s stomping on an arm out there and it’s not my arm,” he said about one benefit of having robots.
    After three days, a large number of cows were coming into the robots on their own. At three weeks, their fetch list was less than 15% of the herd.
    “That’s when I felt like the cows were content, and we got into a routine where we could get extra things done outside of the barn,” Sam said.
    At three months, all cows had calved in and milk production started increasing.
    Sam and Craig take care of the day-to-day on-farm chores while Cathy takes care of the bookwork. Sam is also the nutritionist for their farm and still does nutrition and technical consulting work in the industry. Brenda continues working off the farm for a dairy company, but does chores when needed.     
    “It’s been really exciting and a little scary,” Brenda said about becoming a dairy farmer. “This is where I grew up so I was a kid on this farm. The pressure is different because I’m an adult here making decisions. It’s been good but a big shift.”
    Over the past year, the Fessendens and Reiters have all leaned on each other’s strengths. Cathy has been training with Brenda for bookwork, and Craig has shared his cow knowledge and mechanical expertise.
    “Most things on the robots we are able to fix ourselves,” Sam said. “That helps a lot in keeping cost to a minimal level. It’s just been learning how they work, and Craig is a good mechanic so he helps think through what the system has to do.”
    Both Brenda and Sam have led the team with their technology knowledge.
    “I’m not a big computer guy but Sam made a protocol for me to follow,” Craig said. “It didn’t take me too long to figure it out. I know enough to be dangerous.”
    Sam and Brenda had seen many robotic milking units while in college and working their jobs. Several of their dairy farming friends have also installed automated milking systems.
    “We have technology knowledge and the willingness to learn,” Sam said.  
    They also work closely with a farm business management instructor.
    In the future, the families hope to use the flexibility to allow each couple to take a day off each week. They will also continue improving their herd and work on the project list of converting spaces fit for steers back to dairy cows – something Craig and Cathy thought they would not see on their farm.
    “It’s been fun and exciting,” Craig said. “I’ve always liked cows and always had cattle around so it’s been a good thing.”