Gary (left) checks the information from the robots on his phone on April 11, while his son, Paul, looks on.PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
Gary (left) checks the information from the robots on his phone on April 11, while his son, Paul, looks on.
KERKHOVEN, Minn. - Brooms, wheelbarrows, shovels and tiestalls are what Gary Beckman's dairy farm used to rely on. Now it relies on Lely A-4 robotic milkers, Discovery manure scrapers, a Juno feed pusher and freestalls.
Gary Beckman and his wife, Julie, recently built a new freestall barn with two automated milkers on their dairy farm. The Beckmans milk 125 cows with their son, Paul, and his wife, Kali, in Kandiyohi County near Kerkhoven, Minn.
When Paul was in college, he expressed interest in returning home to farm.
"I always had planned to come back," Paul said.
With Paul planning on returning to the farm, the Beckmans knew they had to make some changes.
"We were going to need the additional income to support everyone," Julie said. "We were going to need to expand in some way."
They realized that it wouldn't be fiscally responsible to reinvest in the existing tiestall barn.
"It was wore out," Gary said. "We didn't want to put money into it."
"Gary couldn't physically continue to milk in the tiestall, and Paul didn't want to milk cows that way either," Julie said. "We needed to make a change."
The Beckmans researched different ideas for the expansion while Paul was in college and attended a dairy tour in Pennsylvania in 2010, which featured a couple robot dairy herds.
After that tour, they continued to attend several other tours in Iowa, Wisconsin and South Dakota, looking at various types of freestall barns and robotic milking systems.
"We saw what worked and what didn't work. We were able to eliminate what we didn't want right off the bat," Gary said. "We wanted to know everything we could because we didn't want to make a mistake on our own building."
However, automated milking systems were not something the Beckmans latched onto right away.
"We backed off a little over five years ago," Gary said. "The economics of a facility like this were intimidating. Those numbers were big."
Gary looked at building a parlor, but didn't know if it was the right direction for them.
"I didn't want to tie down the next generation like that," Gary said.
A new barn was going to cost the same no matter if they installed robots or if they installed a parlor. The decision came down to which milking facility they were going to go with.
Three years later, the Beckmans took a second look at the robots. Soon after, that's what they decided on for their new facility.
"For us it was robots," Gary said. "It looked like the future for dairy farms our size. We wanted free time, and finding hired help was an issue."
"We started planning right away," Julie said. "It was going to take time. We had to figure out what we were going to do, and how we were going to finance it."
When it came to finding a location for the new facility, Gary and Julie decided the best site was on land only a mile and a half away from their tiestall barn that belonged to Gary's father, which was purchased in 1973.
"There was no room to expand at the old farm," Paul said. "We farmed that land for a few years after tearing down the original barn."
The Beckmans broke ground in June 2013, and had to trim 4 feet off the hill to make it level for their new 100 by 184 foot insulated barn with two automated milking units.
The robot has two feed lines; one provides a pellet and the other a roasted soybean mixture for the cows while they are milked. The free stalls are bedded with finely cut soybean straw.
The manure is scraped with two automated scrapers, called Discoveries, which run every hour. They drop the manure through slats into a pit in the middle of the barn. The pit is pumped once a week to their main manure pit just north of the barn.
"We still have some adjustments to make with the manure system," Gary said. "We also have to chop the soy straw shorter to fit through the slats."
The feed is stored in bags right outside the barn. The cows are fed balage, corn silage, corn and a protein mix in a row of headlocks once a day and the feed is pushed up by a Juno automated feed pusher that runs every hour.
"The automated feed pusher is a must," Gary said. "We aren't going to be down here at 2 a.m. to push up the feed."
The barn is cross-ventilated with 14, 57-inch fans and a curtain in the middle of the barn to pull the air down to the cows.
"This helps with cow comfort because it gets the air between the stalls," Gary said.
With the maternity pen in the same barn, the Beckmans installed 10 cameras, which can be checked on their phones.
"It helps us keep track of what is going on without having to drive down here," Julie said. "It also helps us know who a calf belongs to when we have more than one cow calving."
While the barn was being built, the Beckmans purchased cows from several different farmers that were certified Johnes free.
By Dec. 10, the Beckmans moved their milking herd and had their first milking in the robots.
"It took a while to kick in that it was actually ours," Paul said about watching the first cow going through the robots.
The transition for the cows went fairly smoothly with cows visiting the robots 2.7 times per day on average.
"It wasn't bad," Paul said. "Some cows acted like they have done this before. But there were a few we had to bring up."
With only four months under their belts, the Beckmans are already seeing improvements, especially with the activity monitors.
"We are catching heats better, and we are getting more cows bred," Paul said. "We can also check their rumination and milk production to see if there is a problem."
Gary agreed.
"A cow can show up on the sick list, but be completely fine," he said. "They really make you keep an eye on things."
With the robots, the future at Beckman Farms is looking bright.
"The robots are giving us more free time," Paul said. "The cows are also very calm and comfortable here."
"It's been a learning curve, but the work isn't as hard." Gary said. "Milking 125 cows three times a day with only two people - we couldn't do that in a parlor."
"We are really happy with it," Julie said. "We are able to continue the tradition here."