SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – As technology becomes a greater part of the dairy industry, four dairy farmers gathered to discuss their experience with robotic milking systems and provide insight on the automation for others during the robotic panel session March 30 at Central Plains Dairy Expo in Sioux Falls.
    “Absolutely we’d do it again,” said Jason Holschbach of installing milking robots. “Myself and everybody else on our farm are really cow people. Each of us now have been able to focus on the cows, and that’s something we enjoy very much.”
    Holschbach and his family operate Cloveredge Farm LLC near Manitowoc, Wisconsin. They milk 500 registered Holsteins with eight GEA DairyRobot R9500 monoboxes, a change in the milking systems they implemented five years ago.
    The dairy farmer was joined by three others who installed milking robots at least five years ago too.
    John and Sharon Vanderwaal milk 255 cows with four Lely A4 robots on their farm, J&S Dairy, near Maurice, Iowa. In 2017, the Vanderwaals installed the robots after leaving a family partnership with John’s brother where they milked 1,200 cows in a rotary parlor.
    Ryan Lepeska and his family are milking 180 cows with three DeLaval V300 robots at Lepeska Dairy near Stitzer, Wisconsin. The Lepeskas first installed robots in 2009 and made the upgrade to the company’s latest robot series three years ago.
    
Holschbach gives credit to automation for herd success
    The Holschbach family reached a crossroads in their dairy business five years ago when they needed to make improvements to their milking system, housing facilities and management. With the assistance of robots, the family saw their herd health improve and could accommodate Holschbach’s return to the farm.
    “When we built our new facility, we split things in to two,” said Holschbach of the eight robots and new 4-row freestall barn. “Our expectations, which we’re meeting today, is to see a seven-year return on the labor alone. We’re also getting more longevity out of our cows.”
    Production-wise, Cloveredge Farm runs a 90-pound tank average with 3.8% fat and 3.15% protein content.
    The robot’s data on each cow has allowed Holschbach to monitor herd health and catch potential problems earlier. He said the farm’s veterinary expenses are down 15% from prior years because the management team is able to catch early signs of mastitis, pneumonia and sore feet, for example.
    “On the mastitis, we’re catching it a lot faster,” Holschbach said. “A lot of times, we’re catching it at least one day faster and often times with signs that would almost be missed in a parlor.”
    The reports also guide Holschbach for proper maintenance on the equipment.
    “It’s a shift in mindset, really,” said Holschbach of milking with robots instead of a parlor. “There are a lot of reports to guide you in the right direction. It takes a little more tech savvy person, and you have to be diligent.”
    The Holschbachs have spent the past five years benefiting from automated milking technology in the form of herd health and performance and also in the team’s ability to manage the farm better.
    As they consider the future, there is no question robots will be a part of it.
    “We’ll easily get two more years out of ours,” Holschbach said. “When I look at it, I easily see us using these for 10 years. Then, it becomes a want or a need to replace and update.”

Vanderwaals farm on own with robots
     John and Sharon were looking for an opportunity to dairy farm on their own, and installing four milking robots was part of that solution.
    “I wanted to go out on my own,” John said. “With my brother, I took care of the employees, so managing people and cows are totally different aspects. That’s why we decided to go to robots.”
    The Vanderwaals have spent the past five years adjusting to an automated way of farming and the differences that come with it.
    The herd boasts a 95-pound tank average with a 3.8% fat and 3.05% protein content; their goal is to improve to 3.9% fat and 3.15% protein.
    John, who takes care of feeding, estimated that the farm’s feed cost is about $0.30 to $0.35 per head more than the farm he previously helped manage, but production is about 10 pounds greater.
    “What I’ve found is that our savings is in labor, and I’m healthier,” John said. “The extra milk production is offsetting my feed costs. And, within six months we saw a return from labor perspective and being more of a family farm.”
    John also takes care of the robot maintenance, and said his operating costs per robot last year was about $9,200.
    Sharon manages the herd and monitors the robots’ reports to properly care for the cows.
    “The health report is the most important report we take,” Sharon said. “With mastitis, you can check it way earlier before the cows begin to show it. We see the pounds of milk and can question why they go up or down.”
    Overall, the Vanderwaals said their herd is healthier and it is noticeable in their milk production as cows are able to visit the robot as much or as little as they would like in a day.
    “The biggest thing is that we’re milking a fresh cow up to five times a day, and dry cows maybe get two visits and we’re happy with that too,” John said. “The cows are producing at their optimum, and they’re comfortable.”
    The Vanderwaals do not foresee replacing or updating the milking robots in the near future, but know they would not dairy farm without automation.
    “Technology, as it advances, is just like a tractor. If you want the autosteer, you might have to sell your not-so-old tractor,” John said. “I don’t think we’d go back to a traditional way of milking.”

Lepeskas changed course with automation
    When the Lepeska family looked to make upgrades on its dairy farm, they had papers signed to build a parlor; 13 years later, they have not only installed robots but upgraded them to the latest version.
    “Someone told us to check out robots before we went ahead with the parlor,” Lepeska said. “We did and then scrapped the idea of a parlor. Within eight months, we were in with robots.”
    The Lepeskas estimated a seven-year payback on the automated units. They first installed two robots, then as they grew their herd from within, they added a third robot. In 2019, the farm replaced the three robots with the latest series.
    “We had our first ones in for about 10 years and had no intentions of trading them out. Ours had just shy of 100,000 hours,” Lepeska said. “When it came to the upgrade, the bank was on board. They knew we were getting more milk, cows were lasting longer, somatic cell count was down, breeding was better; it was all better from a cash flow perspective.”
    Lepeska said the first robots were purchased and are being installed on another dairy.
    The Lepeskas have a 97-pound tank average with 3.9% fat and 3.15% protein content; the herd also maintains a SCC of about 140,000.      
    On the farm, Lepeska does maintenance on the robots and does all the feeding. He uses the robots’ reports to appropriately manage the herd.
    “You know so much information and everyone’s report,” Lepeska said. “You can individualize a cow’s settings, and there are so many ways you can keep an eye on her.”
    Due to these reports and the information available, the Lepeskas’ veterinary visits have dropped and the family is seeing better herd health.
    While Lepeska and his family have greatly benefited from automation, he warned the audience that robots are not a quick solution to management problems.
    “Robots don’t turn a bad manager into a good manager,” Lepeska said. “You can’t put them in and walk away. You have to use the information to your advantage.”