The milking herd is housed in a freestall barn with mattresses at the Klaphakes’ farm near Freeport, Minnesota. The family built the barn and installed milking robots in August 2010.
The milking herd is housed in a freestall barn with mattresses at the Klaphakes’ farm near Freeport, Minnesota. The family built the barn and installed milking robots in August 2010. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
    FREEPORT, Minn. – As Kevin and Steve Klaphake review cow data on their computer in the dairy barn office, a single picture of the Klaphake men hangs on the wall behind them as a humble reminder of how the family farm has progressed in the last 10 years.
    “It’s unbelievable to think back when we first started farming, it was with 40 cows in a stall barn and we’d feed with wheel barrows,” Steve said. “Now, with our milking robots and calf feeder, we’ve done it all.”
    Steve and his sons, Mike and Kevin, milk 113 cows with two Lely A3 Next milking robots and raise their calves with one automatic calf feeder that were installed in August 2010 on their farm in Stearns County near Freeport.
    Over the past decade, the family has used the technology to improve efficiency on the farm and also provide an outlet for Mike and Kevin to become more involved in the dairy operation. Four years ago, Steve and his sons formed a partnership to create Clay Hills Holsteins LLC.
    “I was in high school yet when Dad did all this. The first month was a whirlwind and it’s just gotten better and better,” said Kevin who is a minority partner with his brother in the arrangement.
    While the brothers also hold down jobs off the farm, Mike and Kevin take care of much of the day-to-day tasks on the dairy.
    Kevin hauls milk every other weekend, so a majority of his time is spent on the farm. During the days, he oversees calf care, such as feeding newborns colostrum, vaccinating and cleaning the pens. He also mixes feed, scrapes the barn and beds the cows.
    Mike works as a welder at an area manufacturer during the weekdays. By 4:30 p.m., he is available to help with evening chores. He also has the flexibility to be present for seasonal fieldwork.
    Steve continues to help on the farm where he is able.
    Since the Klaphake men formed a partnership, they collectively assess opportunities for the betterment of the dairy business.
    “We all make the decisions on purchases and or anything we’ll be doing on the farm,” Steve said.
    The partnership was created as a way to begin transitioning the dairy from Steve and his wife, Pam, to their sons. It, paired with the milking robots, has allowed three families to be supported in some manner by the cows.
    “The boys have a lot of labor and sweat equity into the farm,” Steve said. “They’ll eventually take over, but right now it just doesn’t pan out money-wise. Yet, the robots have let us all be involved more than we could if we didn’t have robots.”
    When Steve thinks about his decision to use automation on the farm, it was a long-awaited goal he had as a young dairyman.
    “I dreamt about robots 20 years ago,” Steve said. “When they became available, that was my dream for the dairy. And now they’re here, and I’m still here.”
    The Klaphakes were one of the first families in the area to use milking robots and an automatic calf feeder on their dairy. Their intentions were to build a freestall barn and install the milking robots, but after touring farms and thinking about the farm’s setup, the Klaphakes decided to add the calf feeder at the same time.
    Through the expected challenges of adapting to the technology – specifically the computer system and data collection – everyone is pleased with that decision made a decade ago.
    “There’s a lot that plays into purchasing robots and one factor is do you purchase everything right away or wait? We did everything, the feed pusher, calf barn,” Steve said. “Then two years later, we tore down the original dairy barn.”
    Kevin agreed.
    “Honestly, we’d probably still be raising calves in hutches if Dad didn’t do it all at the same time,” he said. “I’m glad our parents did this. There are certain times I think I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t.”
     The family enjoys the flexibility the technology lends them, allowing each to take time away from the farm. For Mike, it has allowed his sons, Case, 5, and Lane, 2, to grow up in agriculture.
    “We’ve gotten to move home and my boys love it here,” Mike said. “We all have more time for family, and we’re not worried about being in the barn to get the cows milked.”
    In the time the Klaphakes have had with the technology, they have learned a lot and made few changes.
    They have worked with their nutritionist to develop a ration that is best suited with the milking robots and a pellet that compliments the ration. The family has also diligently practiced a newborn calf protocol that helps prevent scours. Each calf is given colostrum and fed by bottle for five days before moving to the group pen and automatic feeder.
    The Klaphakes also recently replaced the mattresses in the freestall barn to improve cow comfort and lower somatic cell count.
    “We could maybe use 10 more stalls for comfort or the old barn to milk more cows,” Kevin said. “But as I’m driving truck, I see my fair share of farms and it’s crazy to know this is what we have. Dad made an awesome setup.”
    As Mike and Kevin work with Steve to become majority partners, they have intentions of improving components in the herd and diversifying the farm by raising steers. In time, the brothers would like to be able to return to the farm full time.
    And because of the decisions the Klaphakes made 10 years ago, the family’s aspirations are possible.
    “Thinking back to what we did, there was a lot of uncertainty with expanding and putting in robots,” Steve said. “Now we know. It was a chance we had to take.”