What works for 1 is different for another

Producer panel shares experiences with rotary, robot, batch milking

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Attendees at the Central Plains Dairy Expo March 20 took in a presentation called “Milking Their Way,” which featured three dairy farms from Iowa and Texas. All use DeLaval systems but manage their herds differently.

Richard Franta is the solution sales specialist for DeLaval North America and served as moderator for the panel.

“When we see people updating and changing their facilities, we see a lot of debate over how that family should decide what’s best for them,” Franta said. “There’s a real decision between how to manage the cows and how to manage the labor and everybody likes to do it a little differently.”

Franta was joined by producers Sam Schwartz of Rolinda Acres near Waterville, Iowa, Aaron Titterington of Jones Family Farm near Spencer, Iowa, and Dr. Juan Velez, representing Ranch Pepper Dairy, near Dublin, Texas.

Schwartz’s farm consists of 950 cows that are milked with a double-12 parlor and 11 DeLaval VMS V300 robotic milking units. The parlor handles approximately 250 cows while the robots handle the remaining 700.

The robotic barn is designed with access to all 11 robots from a centralized room. There are three pens with three robots in each, with each robot accommodating 60 cows. This allows the cows in those pens to be milked three times a day. The fourth pen has two robots that hold 90 cows.

Schwartz said the robots perform well under the conditions.

“We couldn’t add a third robot in our fourth pen, so we run 90 cows per robot,” Schwartz said. “They hold about two-times-a-day milking and get 75 pounds per cow.”

To begin their lactation, 2-year-olds are milked in the parlor. They are milked here for about three weeks while they recover from calving. Mature cows are moved to the robot right away.

Because the farm uses a guided-flow system, putting fresh cows with the robots too early does not work for them, Schwartz said.

“If you do put them through a guided-flow system, make darn sure that you keep feed in front of them and keep them out of holding areas,” Schwartz said. “It’s why I like having that parlor.”

Schwartz said that putting a training robot in with heifers has made the transition easier. They can go through a basic robot box that only feeds them pellets.

“Anyone that tours our barn, I tell them to put in a training robot,” Schwartz said. “It’s the cheapest thing you’ll ever do, and it pays dividends.”

When the Titterington family of Jones Dairy was preparing for an upgrade, they considered robots for about six months. When they realized all the management changes they would have to make and the true cost of robots, they opted to upgrade to a 64-stall rotary milking parlor. They determined that the parlor route would also allow more room for growth in the future.

“The more we talked about it, it was a really easy decision after all those months,” Titterington said. “It took a couple of weeks, and it fell into place.”

Titterington’s family milks 1,800 Jerseys with a DeLaval rotary parlor installed in March 2023. 

The family built a tunnel-ventilated barn at the same time and used the original facilities to house dry cows and heifers. Titterington said they like the tunnel-ventilated system. With automatic scrapers and a manure-separating system, they can bed all the cows and heifers with the recycled fiber from the newest barn.

Cows were milked in a double-12 parlor before the rotary upgrade. All the shift workers remained through the transition. Milking times have been cut by almost half. This allows the workers to spend more time caring for youngstock.

“We’re doing a better job in some of those areas, because we are milking cows more efficiently and have more time,” Titterington said.

The sort gate at the parlor exit directs cows to an area with headlocks, where they can be tended for herd health.

Rancho Pepper Dairy in Texas combines the concepts of parlors and robots with the use of batch milking. In this design, the cows are not given free access to the robots. Instead, the cows are brought to the robots in groups, or batches, and put in a holding area. Here, they work through 22 robots arranged in a double-11 parallel layout. This setup allows eight employees to manage 2,100 cows.

The cows are grass-fed and milked twice per day. They average 45 pounds of milk per cow per day. The decision to install robots was made due to a labor shortage and the desire to remain an organic, grazing herd.

“The combination of grazing more than one group of animals was one of the main drivers of us moving to batch milking,” Velez said. “The decision to go with robotic versus rotary was made due to the difficulty of finding labor for milking cows in that part of the country nowadays.”

Two people manage the farm during the day, two manage it at night and two are relief milkers. For each shift, a cow mover keeps the robots clean, changes filters when needed, closes gates and observes cow behavior. The other person administers vaccinations, dries cows and takes care of cows that have been sorted after milking.

Verez said the parallel robotic system gives him the perfect blend of management.

“I really like the concept of managing the work on the cows in a rotary parlor with one herdsman doing the breeding and the vaccination in one exit lane,” Velez said. “And I like the idea of voluntary milking. To me, this is a combination of the best worlds.”

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