Enjoying dairy farming again

Zeitlers are 9 months into robotic journey

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COLEMAN, Wis. — The Zeitler family was losing their love of dairy farming.

They were milking 180 cows in an inefficient and outdated 80-stall stanchion barn. For years, they dreamed of being able to leap to a robotic milking system — a dream they realized in 2023.

“We’re finally able to start living the lifestyle we wanted,” Jerry Zeitler said. “We were working 15- and 16-hour days, non-stop. Milking alone took eight or nine hours each day.”

Jerry and his wife, Tricia, purchased the farm from Jerry’s parents in 2014. He is the third generation of his family to run the farm that has been in his family for over 105 years.

The couple is joined by their three adult children — Zach Zeitler, Michaela Zeitler and Renee Seefeldt — who want to continue dairying on the Marinette County farm near Coleman.

Jerry and Tricia said they can enjoy spending more time on the farm with their grandchildren, Connor and Colton Seefeldt, and their new grandbaby due in June.

The Zeitlers are now milking 250 cows in a new barn using four Lely A5 robotic milking units. Another 50 cows are milked in their old facility.

“It was nice not to have to cull any cows through the process simply because they did not work in the robots,” Jerry said. “We took every cow into the new barn at first to see if they would work in the robot or not. We had some nice-uddered cows that just didn’t work in the robots right now.”

After nearly seven years of working to make their robotic dreams a reality, the Zeitlers broke ground on their facility in September 2022. They found that building through the winter went much better than they expected.

“We chose Fox Cities Builders, out of Seymour, because of the experience they have,” Jerry said. “They came here the first time with 5-6 different sets of plans to accommodate four robots. We were able to pick and choose what we wanted based on what we had seen while touring facilities.”

That experience was evident in what the Zeitlers called a seamless building process.

“Everyone worked together so professionally,” Tricia said. “They had weekly job-site meetings, and everyone was always on the same page.”

After touring other robotic dairies, the Zeitlers settled on the Lely A5 robots as their machine of choice, working with Abts Lely Center in New Franken.

“We liked the way the teat cups could never touch the ground,” Jerry said. “They say they will maintain the same footprint for new models. It is reassuring that when the time comes to trade them in and upgrade, I can easily put the new robots in.”

The barn, built with cow comfort in mind, features sand-bedded free stalls and is tunnel-ventilated. Alley scrapers keep the barn clean without disturbing the cows, and an automatic feed pusher keeps feed in front of them.

The Zeitlers said they could not imagine their start-up going smoother than it did.

“They told us we’d be going through hell, and we weren’t sure what that meant,” Tricia said. “It turns out it was a lack of sleep and a little stress. We were blessed with a lot of help and that made the whole process go well. The biggest issue was that they would tell us to go to sleep, but it’s hard. You don’t feel like you should sleep while your friends are all here working.”

Once the initial transition was complete, the Zeitlers’ cows responded with amazing results, rapidly increasing production.

“We were averaging just about 70 pounds per day in the old barn, and we are averaging over 90 pounds per day in the new barn,” Jerry said. “We tested milk in the old barn just before moving the cows, and our best cow had just over 100 pounds of milk. In less than six weeks, she was over 180 pounds in the robots.”

The Zeitlers said the barn provided great improvements in cow comfort over what they could provide in their older facilities.

“In the old barn, the cows were standing for four hours, getting milked, not eating, not drinking,” Tricia said. “There were 87 stalls for 180 cows. There was no cow comfort.”

Nine months into their journey, the Zeitlers could not be happier with their decision to move forward.

“The cows are so relaxed, and the barn is so quiet,” Jerry said. “Our vet is very impressed with the improvements in our breeding program. I don’t know if it’s because of healthier cows or more relaxed cows, but our pregnancy rate is at 40% now.”

The Zeitlers herd was bull-bred until four years ago when they transitioned to all A.I. breeding. Now they are starting to breed the top one-third of their milking herd using sexed semen, with conventional semen on the middle third and Angus on the bottom third. All heifers are bred with sexed semen.

Like the cows, the Zeitler family had to transition to the new management style as well.

“We went from having no real data to having all of this data on the cows,” Michaela said. “It’s a matter of learning what information is available and how to interpret and use it.”

Jerry agreed.

“We are keeping track of our cows better,” Jerry said. “We get almost instant notification if anything changes: if she’s down on milk, if her temperature is up. We can catch issues a lot quicker.”

As they begin to enjoy dairy farming again, the Zeitlers are also beginning to look toward the future. The barn is built to allow a mirror expansion if the family wants to increase cow numbers.

“The kids tell us they want to do this,” Jerry said. “That makes the investment in the facilities and technology that much more appealing, with the idea of a fourth and maybe even a fifth generation here on the farm.”

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