Andy Olson looks over reports from the robots on the computer. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
Andy Olson looks over reports from the robots on the computer.
LEWISTON, Minn. - The Pangrac and Olson families use a simple motto on their farm: Never turn down a crazy opportunity without looking at it first.
They're glad they follow this mantra because one of their crazy opportunities recently turned into a reality. Dale and Carmene Pangrac, their daughter and son-in-law, Kim and Andy Olson, along with the Olsons' children - Mallory (7), Gavin (4) and Amelia (3) - have been using two robots for nearly two years to milk their organic herd of 150 cows on their farm near Lewiston, Minn.
"It gets better each year," Kim said about using the robots to milk the cows on their farm.
The two robots are set up check-out style, with the milkers sharing their maintenance room and each robot on opposite sides. The robots share a holding pen with cows entering the stall from the rear and exiting the front, then using the same lane to exit the barn into the pasture.
While visiting the robots, the cows are fed cracked dry corn and a liquid soybean oil on top. In the summer, this is the only supplemented feed the cows are given. The rest comes from pasture.
The Pangrac and Olson families use the ABC grazing system, allowing the cows access to new pasture three times a day. At about 6:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. someone goes out to the pasture to bring in the last of the cows still in the pasture to be milked. Then the person moves the fences to give the cows new grass. The grazing areas for the cows are rotated between four paddocks of pasture - three that are a total of 25 acres and one that is 35 acres.
"We've had to learn a few tricks to keep them moving and flowing nicely," Kim said.
Dale agreed.
"You can't give them too much pasture because then they won't want to come back to the robot. If you give them too little, they'll be back too soon," he said. "You have to figure out exactly how much pasture to give them."
After a majority of the cows calved in the spring, the herd was up to an average of about 2.6 milkings each day.
"The older cows aren't as bad, but the heifers don't like to come in to be milked as much," Dale said.
Now that the cows are later in lactation, the average number of milkings per day has dropped to 2.1.
"There are so many details with the robots you don't realize," Dale said. "It's a pretty steep learning curve. We've learned a lot in the past two years."
Andy agreed.
"It's definitely a different way of managing them," he said. "As long as you don't use them as an excuse not to be with the cows, they work."
One of the biggest learning curves was figuring out what all the reports mean.
"We know more about our cows than we ever did before," Andy said. "It's like having a doctor's visit each time they are milked."
The family also likes how the robots work with their herd, which they certified organic in 2005.
"You're not out there constantly chasing the cows. They're on their own. They can eat and be milked when they want to a certain extent. You're not interfering with their natural behavior of grazing," Kim said.
The Olsons and Pangracs also said the robots are good for the people, too.
"Our hands, wrists and knees aren't as sore from milking," Carmene said.
And although having robots means the family is always on call in case there is a mechanical problem, they also feel they have more flexibility with their day-to-day schedule.
"We can go to 5:30 basketball games now. We never used to be able to do that," Dale said.
The search for robots began nearly 10 years ago. When the next generation joined the farm in 2005, they added more cows and there was a need for new facilities.
"Our parlor was good for 70 to 80 cows, but once we were over that, cows were standing around more than we wanted to," Dale said about their previous step up parlor.
About five years ago, the families went on a farm tour in Wisconsin and saw the new automated way of milking.
"We weren't ready for them then. Nobody knew how to make robots work for grazing so we waited," Carmene said.
About 75 percent of the cows' feed on the Pangrac and Olsons farm comes from rotational grazing, so it was important to have a system compatible with cows constantly in the pasture.
As the years went on, the family couldn't wait any longer.
"Our parlor was starting to fall apart. It was either do something with it, start over with another facility or quit milking," Dale said.
When looking at facilities, robots came into the discussion again.
"They ended up being the same price as the rest because we had to put up a new building anyway," Andy said.
The family also liked how it could benefit them for the future. It allowed them to continue milking the same number of cows when the work force would cut down to just Kim and Andy.
After talking to a construction company and touring a grazing dairy with robots in Michigan, the crazy idea to use the machines didn't seem far-fetched.
"We checked to see if it (having robots) was OK with organic rules and it was because it's so cow friendly," Dale said.
The Pangracs and Olsons started building the new robot facility in September 2012, adding it to an existing hoop barn with a bedded pack. On Jan. 7, 2013, they milked their cows with robots for the first time.
"We started in January on purpose," Kim said.
This way, the family could first train the cows to use the robots and then train them again in the spring to use the robots combined with grazing.
"It was a big change, but the cows adjusted pretty well," Carmene said.
After a few days, many cows were adjusted and after a few weeks, the majority of the herd was used to the new system.
"Once they knew there was feed there, (in the robot) they were fine," Kim said.
It took the herd a little longer to pick up the new routine when they started grazing.
"They wanted to do what they did when they were milked by us twice a day - go out to the paddock, stay all day and then come back in for milking in one big group," Dale said.
Every few hours someone would go out to fetch about 10 to 15 cows. After about two months the cows started to figure it out. This past spring only took a week for them to get back into the routine.
Now that the family and their herd of cows has adjusted to robots, they are looking at little ways they can make changes to their farm or other technology to add.
"There's so much new technology now," Andy said. "There's a lot of crazy stuff we look at and decide not to do, but we keep an open mind."