Cows rest in the Stuebers’ freestall barn that was retrofitted to house six robots. They have been milking with robots about one year. 
Cows rest in the Stuebers’ freestall barn that was retrofitted to house six robots. They have been milking with robots about one year. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN

    STRATFORD, Wis. – Stueber Farms Inc. turned to robots as an answer to labor and efficiency issues they were facing on their family dairy farm.
    Jake and Jason Stueber, along with their parents, John and Mary, operate Stueber Farms near Stratford. Before making the transition to robots, the Stuebers were milking close to 420 Holstein cows in their double-5 Surge autoflow parlor which was built in 1997. When they transitioned to six Lely A5 robots last January, they reduced their herd size to 360 cows.

    “We were pushing close to 60 cows an hour through the parlor, but milking three times a day, we were operating the parlor close to 20 or 21 hours a day,” Jake said. “That required a lot of employees, and we struggled with the labor market. It always felt like we were managing people more than we were managing our cows.”
    Because of labor, the Stuebers switched to milking twice daily. That was not the answer to their efficiency problems, though.
    The Stuebers began considering the option of installing robots. Jason said he has always been a fan of incorporating robots and had the idea in his head for a while. Jake, on the other hand, was more leery. The labor struggles gave Jake the motivation to begin looking at robots from his brother’s perspective.  
    Automated systems were not a completely new concept on the Stuebers’ farm. In 2016, they installed automated calf feeders. The first calves they raised on the auto-feeders are now in their third lactations.
     “The more we started doing the math, the more robots looked to be very feasible in our eyes,” Jake said.  
    The Stuebers visited farms that had installed robots in order to start thinking how they could best utilize their existing freestall facility. They considered designs that housed each robot in individual rooms throughout the barn but had questions about how to bring potable water, electric, heat and pellets to each room efficiently.
    “We weren’t really feeling good about any of the ideas we came up with for individual robot rooms,” Jake said. “One day, I was working in the barn and I started to think about putting the robot room in the center feed aisle. My brother does all the feeding, and I thought he might not like the idea, but I brought it up and told him to think about it.”
    Jason said he thought about Jake’s idea for about an hour before thinking it might be the answer they were looking for.
    “The only negative, literally, was having to drive in and then back out to feed,” Jason said. “It solved all the questions about water, electric, heat and pellets. The robot room would be located about 200 feet from the existing milk house.”
    Once the Stuebers agreed on the single robot room, located on one end of the freestall barn, they hit the ground running making decisions to bring robotic milkers to their family’s dairy farm.
    “I like the robots, and I think it was the right choice. Help was getting so hard to find,” John said. “I never thought the retrofit would work like it did though.”
    The Stuebers kept their original parlor in-tact for milking fresh cows and hospital cows which are housed in packs in their tiestall barn.
    “We put the robots in to harvest salable milk,” Jake said. “If they are shutting down to clean after milking fresh or treated cows, we are losing milking time for the rest of the herd.”
    With the installation of their six robots, the Stuebers are pleased to have reduced their labor force to themselves and two full-time employees.
    “The robots have made everything so much more efficient,” Jason said. “How we do everything, how we cull, how we feed. It all just runs more efficiently.”
    The Stuebers enjoy the increased time they spend out of the barn as well as the efficiency of the time they spend in the barn.
    “We can be done and in from the barn by 5:30,” Jason said. “We take turns being on call and going out to check things in the evening. To me, you can’t put a value on the peace of mind it brings you. You don’t wake up in the morning and dread looking out the window to see if the morning shift is there or not.”
    Both brothers admit there was a learning process to the technical ins and outs of the computers and the robots, but they became familiar with the equipment relatively quickly.
    “Learning the whole process was almost more overwhelming than training the cows,” Jason said. “But, we had a very good experience with the transition.”
    The Stuebers were pleased that not only did their retrofit project come in on-time and under budget, but they found additional savings through increased energy efficiencies they had not originally considered.
    “It’s all made a difference in the cash-flow for us,” Jason said.
    The fetch gates were delayed and did not arrive until about two months after the initial start-up.
    “That actually worked in our favor,” Jake said. “We used temporary gates in a variety of different configurations before we found the way that worked the best for us.”
    The Stuebers have been happy with how their cows have adjusted to the robots and how their production has responded. They are now averaging over 90 pounds of milk per day per cow.
    “Making the decision to install the robots has allowed me to really enjoy farming again,” Jason said.