New to computers less than a year, Jeff West, has taken to the technology like a cow to pasture. He got started with the machines when he installed three robotic milkers on his 180-cow farm near Farmersburg, Iowa.PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
New to computers less than a year, Jeff West, has taken to the technology like a cow to pasture. He got started with the machines when he installed three robotic milkers on his 180-cow farm near Farmersburg, Iowa.
FARMERSBURG, Iowa - Technology has taken Westrich Farms by storm.
Last June, Jeff West invested in three robotic milkers. During the same month, this dairyman from Farmersburg, Iowa, began using dried manure solids to bed his herd of 180 cows.
Since robotic milkers use computers to function, West (55) decided he should learn more about the devices. A computer novice last summer, today West has two of the electronic brains at his disposal. One is a laptop in the house that can communicate with a larger one in his office in the barn.
That's not the end of West's foray into technology. This past December, he turned to state-of-the-art medical procedures to have both his knees replaced.
West grew up working on the farm of his father, the late Jerry West, and his mother, Arlene. She still takes an active interest in the 272-acre farm in Clayton County. West rents the land from her, and he owns the cattle and equipment.
Those decades of bending, squatting and climbing took a toll on West's knees, so he had the surgery done this past Dec. 16. Inserting the plastic-and-metal knees took 2.5 hours, with one surgeon working on each leg simultaneously.
He has gotten back to driving a car lately, but hasn't been out to the barn much. He misses his former work of feeding the cows and cleaning the barn.
"I figure, by the time it's cropping season, I'll be doing pretty good," West said. "Full recovery, they say, is a year."
Helping plug the labor gap are a few part-time workers plus full-time employees and married couple, Tony and Jamie Goodrich. West said Jamie manages the robotic milkers and the calves while her husband handles the feeding and barn cleaning. Come spring, West and Tony will take care of the fieldwork together.
West decided to invest in the triumvirate of Lely A4 robotic milkers because he wanted more information about how his 163 milking Holsteins are doing. The Wests built a double-4 milking parlor in 2000. West said he could have gleaned more cow information by upgrading the parlor, but the twice daily milking was taking six to eight hours a day.
"[They] seemed like the way to go," West said about robots. "Everyone was working in that direction. I would've had to update the parlor to get more information, because I wasn't doing the milking myself."
Thanks to the robots' computer system, and the activity and rumination sensors on the cows' collars, West can be swimming in numbers if he chooses.
"I can tell if a cow is getting sick. I can tell how she is ruminating, whether she's coming into heat," he said.
Along with a wealth of cow information, the move to robotic milkers has rewarded West with more milk in the bulk tank. Production has risen 15 to 20 pounds a day, West said. As of late February, the cows were averaging 83 pounds of milk per day. According to his DHIA test records, the yearly average is approximately 24,000 pounds, on a 305-day lactation.
More good news with the robots: The somatic cell count (SCC) has dropped a bit and is now at roughly 200,000. The fat and protein tests, meanwhile, have stayed steady at 3.9 and 3.1 percent, West said.
Westrich Farms uses a free-flow system that lets cows go to the robots whenever they wish. West said the average number of milkings per cow per day is three. Some cows go through the robots as few as twice a day, while others opt to be milked six times daily.
To accommodate the robots, West added 24 feet to one end of the 160-stall freestall barn. West has it set up with one robot in a corner of the building and two at the other end. The robots were placed in that arrangement to fit the number of stalls in each area, and for the lactation stages of the cows.
West said he is pleased with the performance of the robotic milkers and his manure solids separator. When West began chopping all his corn, he had no stalks to bale for bedding. Plus, he encountered a problem with the stalks catching fire. He doesn't want to bed with sand, because it would grind away at various pumps and other pieces of the manure system.
With the new system, manure is scraped twice a day into a pit under the old freestall barn area. Then it's pumped to the Bauer screw press separator that's in an upper area of the barn. An auger carries the manure to a screen, where the solids are diverted to the floor below, while the liquid portion flows to the Slurrystore manure tank.
When the solids have dried a bit, they're used as bedding in the freestalls. Only about half the solids are used for bedding. The rest are stacked outside until they can be spread onto fields.
For years, the stalls have had discarded tires filled with lime in them. West explained that the tires provide cushioning and help hold the bedding in place. Four or five inches of dried manure solids are placed in the stalls every other day.
West said the manure solids are working well. In fact, his DHIA representative remarked one day that the cows looked like they'd just been washed.
How long might it take for the solids separator to pay for itself?
"I really don't know," West said. "It's really hard to say. But you've got to bed with something."
Besides letting him get by without buying bedding, the separator reduces wear and tear on his corn chopper. Then there's the diesel fuel that's not being burned, and the extra room in the 400,000-gallon manure tank.
"It was at the point that it would've held three months' worth of manure. Now it probably holds four months, since I'm separating everything," West said.
The past eight months have brought changes to the West farm. When West farmed with his father, they were also willing to change the way they did things.
An aerial photograph from 1974 shows the two-story barn, farmhouse and other buildings. But another picture, taken about 30 years later, also shows seven upright silos - five of them Harvestores and two of them made of concrete staves. The seven were built between 1978 and the early 2000s.
The silos stemmed partly from the Wests' desire to expand the milking herd. In 1957, when Arlene and her husband moved to the farm, they milked 20 cows. The place has a bit of family history tied to it: Arlene's father was born there more than a century ago.
West shouldered more responsibility with the farm when he turned 21, and that gradually increased. Then, in 2000, the Wests incorporated the farm. That arrangement had the family renting the land from the corporation, and West and his father working for the corporation.
Now the farm has taken another turn - one toward newer technologies. West looks forward to using them.
"I went from no computer to robots. I've got a lot to learn yet, but I can get through my cow programs," he said.
Altering the way he farms brings new interest to dairying.
"It's the variety I like," West said. "I'm not doing one thing all day."