A cow is being milked by a robot while another waits her turn in Drumgoon East, a new robotic dairy facility recently completed by the Elliott family. 
PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
A cow is being milked by a robot while another waits her turn in Drumgoon East, a new robotic dairy facility recently completed by the Elliott family. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
    LAKE NORDEN, S.D. – It has been said that the only constant is change. Change has certainly been a constant for the Elliott family during the past 15 years after they first arrived in South Dakota from Northern Ireland and started milking 140 cows.
    The most recent expansion of their dairy, Drumgoon Dairy, would prove to be the biggest change and challenge the Elliotts – Rodney and Dorothy and their three children, David, James and Rebecca – have ever faced: building a new dairy barn with 20 DeLaval VMS™ V300 robotic milkers to add 1,500 cows to make their herd total 5,500 cows near Lake Norden.
    In 2006, the Elliotts moved to South Dakota from Northern Ireland where they had milked 140 cows on their 200-acre farm.
    Rodney and Dorothy purchased a bare quarter section of land located alongside Highway 81 and began to build the farm they named Drumgoon Dairy. Their first barn was a cross ventilated facility that measured 500 feet by 300 feet and was capable of housing 1,400 head.
    There followed a steady march of changes and expansion. In 2008, the Elliotts expanded to 2,000 head. In 2013, they built a new 1,100-cow dairy facility they named Norden Barn. Over the ensuing years, a dry cow barn was added, and Norden Barn’s parlor and freestall facilities were expanded. By 2019, Drumgoon Dairy was milking about 4,000 head.
    As with all of their dairy facilities, Rodney designed the new robot barn and was the general contractor.
    “Our design was all about minimizing labor and the time that cows waste in the robots,” Rodney said. “We are using a guided flow system. Gates and fences control when any particular cow does or doesn’t have milking permission. It’s a toll booth system. If she wants to visit the feed bunk, she must first pass through a sorting gate. If she needs to be milked, she will be sent to a robot.”
    Construction on the robot barn, which has been named Drumgoon East, began in June 2020. The Elliotts milked their first cows in the new facility Jan. 18. 
    “We started up in four different phases as we gradually populated the barn,” Rodney said. “It took us three months to complete the startup. We learned something new with each phase. Our staff was wonderful throughout the startup process. And the staff at Farm Systems backed us up with moral and physical support.”
    The new robot barn measures 812 feet long by 315 feet wide. It features a flat roof, is cross ventilated and can house up to 1,500 head.
    “The roof is insulated with spray foam insulation,” Rodney said. “Last winter, when it got deeply cold for about a week, nothing froze in the barn. And we only had 500 head in it at the time.”
    As with any complex system, there were a few hiccups at the start.
    “We have 14 electric water heaters that serve the 20 robots,” Rodney said. “Some of the water heaters were malfunctioning, so we had some cleaning issues. We installed better thermostats and a system to monitor the water heaters.”
    The cows that are being milked by robots in Drumgoon East have adapted well to the new milking system.
    “We choose which cows will go to the robot barn based on such things as teat placement and temperament,” Rodney said. “Less than 1% of the cows have failed to adapt to the robots. Our goal was to milk 75 cows per robot. We have met that goal in several of our pens.”
    Milk production in the robot barn is 77 pounds per head per day at an average of 190 days in milk. The majority of the herd is crossbred cows.
    The free stalls are bedded with sand. A set of automatic scrapers take the manure to a flume system, which carries the manure to a pair of sand lanes. Recovered sand is scraped from the sand lanes and allowed to drain before being reused.    
    There are no calving facilities at Drumgoon East. Cows give birth in a dedicated maternity pen located elsewhere on the farm. Fresh cows that are selected to be moved to the robot facility are milked in a traditional parlor for a short time.
    “We milk the first lactation animals in the parlor for 15 to 25 days before moving them to Drumgoon East,” Rodney said. “The second lactation cows are milked in a parlor for five to six days after freshening before we move them. Some of our cows went through part of a lactation in the robot barn and have since freshened again. Those animals have adapted especially well.”
    Labor savings is often listed as the top reason for adding robotic milkers. While that is true at Drumgoon Dairy, it is not the main driver behind going to robots.
    “I think this new facility will pay for itself through increased milk production and by extending the productive lifetime of our animals,” Rodney said. “The average cow at our dairy currently lasts for 2.3 lactations. Increasing that by just half a lactation will be enough to pay for the robots.”
    But labor considerations were definitely a factor when the Elliotts decided to go with robots.
    “We have 55 full-time employees and were able to increase our milk herd by more than 1,400 head without any additional labor,” Rodney said. “It takes just two employees per shift to manage Drumgoon East. Working in the robot barn has become one of the most sought-after positions on our farm. The younger employees especially enjoy working there. A main reason for building this barn was for our employees. We hope to increase employee retention and give them an opportunity to grow and to learn.”
    Each employee who works in Drumgoon East is given a smart phone. The smart phone will alert them if a robot has an issue or if a cow needs to be guided into a robotic milker. 
    “The robots collect reams of data about every cow,” Rodney said. “You can watch on your smart phone and see how much milk the individual quarters of a cow are giving in real time. The robots alert us to such things as high or low milk yields and high or low cow activity. If the milk has high conductivity, it will automatically be dumped. We don’t have to worry about antibiotic residues because we haven’t used antibiotics for three years.”    
    Change will continue to be a constant companion at Drumgoon Dairy.
    “As the dairy industry continues to evolve, more and more cows will be milked by robots,” Rodney said. “And when our milking parlors wear out, perhaps our farm will become home to some additional robots.”
    More changes are already in the works at Drumgoon Dairy.
    “In 2022, we plan to build an anaerobic manure digester,” David said. “The digester will provide renewable methane to the local natural gas grid, help us manage our manure and reduce our carbon footprint.”
    Change is constant.