Charlie Knigge looks over reports June 11 at his family’s farm near Omro, Wisconsin. Today’s robotic software is much more user-friendly than years ago, Knigge said. 
Charlie Knigge looks over reports June 11 at his family’s farm near Omro, Wisconsin. Today’s robotic software is much more user-friendly than years ago, Knigge said. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    OMRO, Wis. – Pete Knigge was fascinated with robotic milking long before the technology appeared in the United States. His first encounter with robots occurred during a trip to Europe with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for manure regulations. On a stop at a university farm, Pete was able to see robots in action, and his plans for a 500-cow dairy soon took a detour. He and his son, Charlie, met with Lely representatives from the Netherlands in Madison during the 1999 World Dairy Expo. The company had yet to introduce its robotic technology to Expo goers.
    “Robots were not on anyone’s radar at the time,” Charlie said. “People in the U.S. had not even heard of them.”
    About nine months later, Knigge Farms, located near Omro, would become the first farm in the United States to install robots. The first milking took place July 14, 2000, beginning a long adventure of training cows how to use a system that nobody else in the country was using.  
    “We were very nervous about dealing with a foreign company that had no presence in the U.S.,” Charlie said. “But we soon realized (it) is a great company to work with.”
    When Charlie finished the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course, he and his parents were planning to expand the herd from 50 cows to 500 and put in a parlor.
    “We wanted more cows, but we weren’t crazy about adding more people,” Charlie said. “We were nervous about the expansion and having hired help.”
    So, the family decided to tackle a new way of milking cows – an option that would lead to increasing herd size to 120 and require no additional labor.
    “It was a nightmare to get started,” Charlie said. “I don’t wish that on anyone. Getting cows attracted to the robots in those days was a challenge.”
    In the beginning, robotic milking was anything but hands-off for the Knigges.
    “We spent all day in the barn and half the night fetching cows,” Charlie said. “Sometimes we thought, ‘Why did we do this?’”
    The ordeal lasted several years as the Knigges struggled to get cow traffic flowing correctly. Perfecting the energy equation between bunk and robot was a dilemma.
    “Shortening the energy on bunk feed and then trying to make up for that loss in the robot was a trick,” Charlie said. “Energy pellets are the gold standard now. But when we first started, they were a treat, and that didn’t work. It was a sweet feed, and even different flavors did not help. We pulled salt out of the TMR, but that didn’t solve the problem either. We worked with UW-Madison to figure out energy requirements and tried lots of things with our nutritionist. In the end, it took three years to get robot traffic flowing. It was painful.”
    Being on the front end of robotic technology meant the Knigges would face all kinds of challenges, including approval to ship milk from a robot.
    “Our local inspector was not on board with the technology and said he would never allow it,” Charlie said. “The state inspector almost disassembled the whole unit to understand how it worked. From valves to sensors, he wanted to see every part that was in contact with the milk.”
    Stainless steel parts were not polished to U.S. standards – an issue that had to be addressed before shipping milk. The inspector also did not trust the sensors responsible for dumping treated milk and cleaning the system afterwards. As a result, every load of milk coming from Knigge Farms was tested for nearly four years.
    Another challenge is barn design. The four-row barn was set up for forced traffic conditions and is split in two with a robot on each side – a design Charlie does not recommend.
    “The facility should be one entity so that cows have access to more than one robot,” he said.
    The Knigges milk 120 cows with two robots and farm 600 acres. Pete, and his wife, Theo, bought the farm in 1974 after moving to the Omro area from Kenosha and are still involved in the operation. Charlie’s son, Jacob, 17, also works on the farm. Cow numbers at the dairy have remained unchanged for 20 years.
    “We can stay small,” Charlie said. “That’s the beauty of robots. They allow us to milk less cows more efficiently. We went to 120 cows for less money than we would’ve spent going to 500. With robots, a farm is prepaying for labor, and someday, the robots will be paid for. Hired help always has to be paid and that amount keeps increasing. You never catch up.”
    The Knigges began with the company’s A-2 robots which they used for 10 years before switching to the A-3 model in June 2010 – a model they use today.
    “We’re thinking about upgrading to the A-5 robot this summer,” Knigge said. “They won’t fit in the same space so we’re working on the logistics. We’ll have to add a 13-foot wide addition for the new robots, and we’ll need to make the entrance area bigger too.”
    The Knigges ship their milk to Agropur, and cows average 80-85 pounds of milk per cow per day.
    “We know we have room to improve, but we’re comfortable where we’re at,” Charlie said.  
    Charlie sometimes helps Central Ag Supply, a dealership in Juneau, with installing robotic milking units to help train farmers and get them up to speed on the technology. The Knigges have also helped their farm’s robotic milking company with startups.
    “It’s really fun to see the setups and get farmers going,” Charlie said. “What took us years to figure out takes them months. It’s dramatic how fast farms get up and running now.”
    In 20 years’ time, the Knigges have seen a night-and-day transformation of robots.
    “It’s like going from a land line to a smart phone,” Charlie said. “That’s how much the technology has changed from then to now. The old software was not very user friendly, but the new software is.”
    Charlie enjoys the freedom robots provide and loves the fact chores can be done at any time.  
    “The downside to robots is that you’re not touching the cows two or three times a day, so we spend quite a bit of time walking cows,” he said. “This is not a flip the switch and walk away type of system. You still have to manage your herd.”
    The individual monitoring of cows is a feature Charlie loves.
    “It’s a very useful tool,” he said. “The collars monitor cows better than we do and are great for flagging sick animals. The info the robot spits out on each cow is amazing. There are upwards of 150 points of data.”
    The farm’s slogan is, “Knigge Farms: Where the cows milk themselves.” As the country’s first adopter of robotic milking technology, the Knigges are thankful they chose robots and stuck with them through the trying years.
    “We wouldn’t milk our cows any other way,” Charlie said.