EPWORTH, Iowa – A nearly complete trigon milking parlor sits unused at Koopmann Brothers Dairy near Epworth, Iowa.
    Only the automatic takeoffs from the setup were sold when the farm installed two Lely robots in 2015. But aside from the parlor, Chad and Brent Koopmann were able to put their existing dairy facilities to good use in the new configuration housing their milking herd.
    The brothers began preparing their existing freestall barn for robots in 2014, resulting in housing and handling distinct to their dairy’s needs.
    Some things did not change much. For example, when they milked in the parlor, the cows grazed at night and were fed TMR during the day. Now, in order to clean the alleys and to bed the mattresses, the Koopmanns’ cows still leave the barn, passing through a foot bath on their way out.
    “We call it recess,” Chad said. “The cows are like kids; if you so much as rattle the chain on the door, every cow heads there.”
    However, updates to their cow handling led to the Koopmanns’ belief that production increases since putting in robots came from better cow comfort rather than more frequent milking. They installed new mattresses, switched to flexible free stalls and extended the stall platforms to 10 feet. Ten 60-inch fans now provide constant air exchange in the tunnel-ventilated facility, along with two 24-inch fans in the barn’s peak.
    “We have a 6 to 8 mph breeze in there during the summer,” Chad said. “Cow health is tremendous. You pay for it, but it pays you back.”
    Two freestall barns that house the milking herd are connected by a breezeway alley. That configuration and careful budgeting prevented some changes, but they did widen alleys and extend parts of the barns to accommodate drive-through feeding and cover the manure storage area.  
    The feed alley is in the larger barn, while the robots are on the opposite side of the complex where the previous holding pen was located.
    The barn has 108 stalls, with 135 milking cows housed there. Manure is pumped underground to a slurry pit.
    Bedding is done once a week with washed lime and shavings in the winter.
    Decisions surrounding which cows to keep and which to sell have also changed. At start-up, the Koopmanns gave the questionable udders the benefit of the doubt. They found cows with close back teats more difficult for the robot to handle than big udders.
    Culling criteria also has new perspectives beyond production and udder conformation.         
    “You may not want that 100-pound cow because she milks too slow,” Chad said. “The robot can milk two in that time. It took me awhile to get that through my head.”
    His brother pointed out how the current cow and heifer market has also impacted their culling.
    “Do I sell a heifer, an old cow or dry one up early?” Brent said. “Fresh heifers are going for $800; I have twice that in raising them. We might also want to keep that 60-pound heifer with sky-high components.”
    Their fresh cow process includes attaching a transponder to the cow and programming the information into the robot’s computer. They singe the udder and clip the tail hair, dip the teats and dry them as if they were in the parlor, then let the robot map the udder.
    The Koopmanns invested in a robotic feed pusher a year after installing their milking system. Brent calls it the most reliable piece of equipment on the farm.
    “It doesn’t matter whether you push up feed by hand or use this, though,” Brent said. “The more it’s pushed up, the better.”
    He also noted how it promotes cow flow, since cows get up to feed each time it makes a pass and are more likely to visit the robots at that time.
    Another change they made after the robots were operating was replacing inflations, changing from silicone round inflations to rubber square ones and finding they increased the speed of milking. Adjustments to the pellets fed in the robots has also been reviewed.
    “We found it’s better to fine tune your feed bunk than your pellet,” Brent said. “We might tweak pellet ingredients just a bit.”
    With the robots, the dairy rarely synchronizes breeding for a cow. They use motion data from the robots for heat detection. The robots do not track rumination, but it is something the brothers could add later.
    All in all, the Koopmanns said they would not go back to milking in that trigon parlor.     
    “Basically, we were missing a step milking two times a day,” Brent said. “Milking was all we’d ever get done if we had gone to three times in the parlor.”