Built for the future

Haags’ robot facility a turning point for next generation

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MOUNT HOREB, Wis. — After farming together for nearly 40 years, Virgil and Dawn Haag are ready to let their kids, Kody and Karsen, take the lead. At the center of this transition is a new robotic barn.

“These are our only two children, and we’re trying to help them in their careers,” Dawn said. “This barn wasn’t built for us. We built this barn for the future. We built it for our kids. They put the work and time into designing it.” 

The Haags milk 200 cows near Mount Horeb on their farm, Virhada Holsteins. Their new facility was completed this summer and features four Lely A5 robotic milking units. Robots are located opposite each other with one robot on each side of the robot room. 

“This creates better flow because cows disperse on opposite sides,” Karsen said. “You have cows that like the left or right side, just like with stalls. Visitors to our farm during World Dairy Expo commented on the cow flow and said it’s nicer than most they have seen.”

Another factor the Haags said helps with cow flow is that cows travel in the same direction for milking as they did in their old facility. Utilizing a free-flow system, the 6-row, tunnel-ventilated barn features two pens with two robots per pen. Cows are grouped by age, with older cows on one side and first- and second-lactation cows on the other. Each side contains 110 stalls. 

“We found that boss cows pushed the younger ones around in the old barn, so we wanted that separation here,” Virgil said. 

Cows average 3.2 to 3.3 milkings per day, and milk production has increased by 10 pounds per cow. Virhada Holsteins is 99% registered with an unofficial BAA of 107.5 and a rolling herd average of just over 27,000 pounds of milk. 

Before moving into the robot barn, the Haags milked 145 cows twice a day in a double-8 flat-barn parlor for 22 years. 

Virgil and Dawn were married in 1984, and in 1996, they bought the farm from his parents. They milked in a 90-stall tiestall barn until 2001 when they put up a freestall barn and a flat-barn parlor. Virgil and Dawn and their children created an LLC in 2017.

Kody and Karsen were required to work somewhere else for three years before coming home full time. Kody has been back since 2015. Karsen said she never really left but has been full time for the last two years.

“The goal is for us to do less as parents and for the kids to do more and eventually take over the farm,” Dawn said.

Dawn retired in June from a job she held off the farm. Three days after the robots started on Aug. 10, she and Virgil left on a 10-day trip, leaving Kody and Karsen in charge of startup.

“Startup went super smooth,” Karsen said. “The first three days were long with pushing the whole herd, but everything went great.”

They fed pellets to cows while milking in their old facility, which Kody said made for easier training on the robots.

When planning their barn, the Haags made sure the cow comfort was a top priority. 

Ventilation and stall design were key areas the Haags focused on. The barn contains a total of 40 fans, including fans placed over stalls and near robots. Windflow over cow stalls is approximately 8 mph.

“If the cows aren’t eating or milking, they’re lying down,” Virgil said. “They’re so comfortable. There is no crowding with our cows, even when it’s extremely hot.” 

The barn has a low ceiling to prevent the loss of cool or warm air, helping to retain heat during the winter and keep the barn cooler during summer. In addition, the roof is insulated. 

“When it’s hot outside, the barn stays so cool inside,” Karsen said.

The barn features flex stalls which Virgil said gives cows more lunge room. Cows are bedded with sand. The barn also features alley scrapers, and an automatic feed pusher was added in October.   

“We have a lot more feed line space in this barn compared to our old barn,” Kody said.

 Each side of the barn has a special needs area with six stalls to use for herd checks, breeding and treating sick cows as well as a separate 14- by 10-foot holding area that serves as a fetch pen.

The barn measures 270 feet by 122 feet and also includes a utility room. The Haags have been planning their barn since 2017 and made changes to their design during that timeframe. The family did their homework and toured well over 20 robot barns. 

“When we went on tours, we watched the cows,” Karsen said. “After they got done in the robot, what did they do? How long did it take for one cow to get milked? A cow will tell you a lot of things just by watching her.”

The amount of hands-on time for the farmer was another detail the Haags took note of. The Haags’ hands-on time is 1.5 hours between 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., which is used to fetch cows for milking or breeding or other minor tasks, Karsen said. 

“We check on the cows at different times of the day; it’s not always the same time,” Karsen said.

The Haags looked at retrofit barns but decided to build new.

“We thought if we’re going to do this right, we need to put the cows in the most comfortable facility,” Dawn said.

Their old freestall barn is used for dry and pre-fresh animals. Calves are housed in the original dairy barn. Dawn said the new robotic facility is the start of renovations on the farm.

“We need to update our calf barn too,” she said. “We have updates we want to make to the whole farm, and it’s going to be in process for a while.”

More family time and less wear and tear on their bodies are benefits the Haags also appreciate about their labor-saving solution.

“It’s primarily the four of us doing all the work, and this is not as physical on our bodies,” Dawn said. “The robots also allow our kids to spend more time with their kids, and hopefully their bodies stay healthier longer. Virgil is at the chiropractor less, so it’s helped him too.” 

Karsen and her husband, Dan, have three children, and Kody and his wife, Anna, have one child. Robots were the way of the future for this family farm looking to let the next generation take over.

The Haag family is holding an open house Nov. 8 to showcase their facility. 

“Our goal is to get up to 240 cows milking to comfortably support three families,” Karsen said. “But for now, I’m happy where we’re at.”  

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