PEOSTA, Iowa – In the spring of 2014, Bill and Jeff Lawler hosted an Open Barn Day to share their experience from installing four milking robots and remodeling a freestall barn on their dairy farm in Peosta, Iowa.
    This fall, visitors were invited back to Lawler Dairy by Iowa State University Extension Nov. 14, which scheduled nine tours of robotic facilities in Iowa over 30 days.
    This time, the Lawlers had more experiences to share.
    “The longer you’re in this, the more you’re going to figure out,” said Jeff Lawler, who owns the dairy in partnership with his father, Bill.
    Jeff’s wife, Colleen, and two of their sons are also involved.
    “It’s about management,” Lawler said. “You can manage as much as you want. If the robots are going to work, you have to pay attention. But the computer makes it easy. In 15 minutes, I have everything I need [to manage cows].”
    Looking back, Lawler said the first months with the new system were difficult.
    “But within six months, you’d never know things were different,” he said.
    With each cow’s next freshening, the animal went to the robots quickly. Only one heifer was sold because it would not adapt.
    Along the way, the Lawlers also discovered that for them, Jersey cows did not work because of their size.
    The Lawlers previously milked 200 cows in a double-8 parallel parlor. The parlor equipment was sold and the building was converted to calf housing. The freestall barn was expanded and updated. A manure system and new heifer barn were built. They added an automatic feed pusher shortly after installing the robotic milking units.
    The freestall barn has been switched to waterbeds and fine lime. The previous sand bedding was not compatible with the new manure handling system.
    With more records and activity monitors on the cows, the Lawlers’ cows are being bred sooner. Cows not pregnant by 80 days fresh are synchronized. They use a beef bull for cleanup.
Production has leveled off with a daily tank average in the 70-pound range. But because they previously used rbST, they find it hard to compare those numbers to their pre-robot production.
    Standing in the freestall barn, Lawler pointed out how much quieter the cows have become.
    “We walk through here about five or six times a day,” Lawler said. “We’re spending just as much time out here, but we’re not chasing cows. We’ve accomplished relying less on labor.”
    With four maintenance sessions each year on the robots, the Lawlers have seen normal wear and tear on items like inflations and other rubber parts. Their utility costs are higher but other costs have stayed in line with their previous dairy setup.
    As technology has progressed, Lawler said there are more features on the newest models of robots compared to the version they have. He and his father hope updates might be available. Knowing what they have learned, he also wishes he had put in a foot bath when updating the barn.
    “Right or wrong, we’re committed to long-time dairying,” Lawler said.