The mantra for dairy farmers struggling to remain viable in the industry used to be “get big or get out.” Today, that mantra seems to have shifted to “do something different.”

For Lewis and Amy Horning, doing something different on their 50-head dairy operation entailed adding an automated milking system (AMS), or robotics. The Hornings rent the farm from Amy’s father, who encouraged them to consider an AMS after realizing that they were willing to endure the highs and lows that come with dairy farming.

The cow’s collar includes a transponder that identifies her as a unique individual in the computerized system. The milking routine and pelleted slug feeding can be individually managed for each cow in the herd.All photos by Sally Colby.

But robotics wasn’t what Lewis and Amy envisioned when they considered what might work best to improve their operation. Their original plan was to build a new heifer barn since the existing tie-stall barn was adequate for their 45-head milking herd. After considering several options, they realized that it made more sense to invest in the milking herd – the animals making money – rather than a new state-of-the art heifer barn.

“We wanted to stay small because of our limited acreage, but we didn’t want to build a new tie stall barn,” Lewis said, noting that they increased the herd by 15 animals to fill the new barn. “We looked into a milking parlor, but it wasn’t justifiable for 60 cows. The robot was a better fit.”

Investing in research

Lewis and Amy researched the concept and visited several dairy operations with AMS set-ups, including large farms with multiple robots and smaller farms with just one unit. With support from Amy’s father and seeing an opportunity for more time to devote to other aspects of the farm, they decided on a new 62-stall freestall barn and a Lely AMS.

The Hornings’ AMS was installed in 2010, and although there were some challenges at first, Lewis was optimistic that the system was the right choice. It took some effort to teach the cows to enter the unit, but Lewis had good support from Lely during the initial training period.

The transponder that each cow wears is a key component of the system, and serves as the link between the individual cow and the computer system. Each time a cow approaches the milking unit, the transponder on her collar is read by the computer and determines how much feed she can receive.

Attaching teat cups can be one of the challenges in a robotic milking system, so Lewis tries to select bulls that offer ideal teat placement.

“It goes by production,” Lewis said, explaining how each cow’s slug feeding is determined. “It takes into account the last time they were in to be milked and how much they’re producing, and measures the feed according to that.”

Meeting nutritional needs

Mature cows are allowed up to 6 pounds/day of grain, and heifers can receive up to 5 pounds/day. The slug feeding is formulated to ensure that cows’ nutritional requirements are partially met through the homegrown total mixed ration (TMR) and balanced by the slug feeding. If cows receive total nutrients in the TMR, they are not as likely to enter the AMS for the slug feeding.

After the teats are washed and dried, the milking unit attaches and remains in place until the cow is milked out. Since each quarter is managed individually, Lewis can trouble-shoot and manage any issues as they occur.

Cows that approach the unit too soon after a previous milking are gently escorted out, and usually return to the freestall area to eat or rest. Once the cow is allowed into the unit, a laser-guided system scans her underline, udder and teats. Using a combination of this information along with stored information from previous milkings, the system determines teat location and begins the pre-wash. After teats are washed and dried, teat cups are attached and milking begins. After milking is complete, teats are dipped and the cow exits to return to the freestall area.

Lewis’s records show that cows are coming into the unit an average of 2.9 milkings/day, which is close to the three times allowed by the computer setting. He can see exactly how much milk is produced in each quarter and how long it took each quarter to milk out. He can change the pulsation rate according to milk flow, slowing it down toward the end of milking if the cow’s milk flow pattern indicates that that would be favorable. However, cows that continually take longer to milk out are culled.

Cows’ teats are thoroughly washed and dried prior to milking.

“I’ve found that it helps to cull some of the slower milking cows,” Lewis said. “I can milk more cows because of that culling. That’s also reported on the computer – which cows are most efficient.”

The system is programmed to withhold milk from fresh cows for four days, although it can be set to withhold any individual’s milk for any time period. After fresh cows are milked, the robot goes through a cycle that thoroughly washes the milking unit before the next cow enters.

Lewis Horning can check on numerous aspects of each individual cow’s performance on a computer in his office, which is adjacent to the AMS room.

First, calf heifers are added to the freestall barn immediately after calving. Some heifers enter the unit on their own within a few days after freshening, while others take longer. “They’ve never seen it before,” Lewis said, adding that some farms put springing heifers in with the milking herd to help them become accustomed to the new routine. “I’ve noticed that fresh heifers tend to find their way to the robot in the middle of the night or other times when it isn’t busy. It depends on how curious they are. Sometimes I’ll come out in the morning and find that they’ve gone to the robot. I’ve also noticed that heifers will go over to be milked when I’m putting feed in the bunkers.”

The dry-off period, a critical time period that prepares the cow for her next lactation, is also handled by the computer system. Lewis explained that about eight to 10 days prior to the start of dry-off, the amount of feed in the slug feeding is reduced. If necessary, Lewis can limit the number of times a cow can come in for milking in a 24-hour period. He has also found that changing the routine – perhaps a stint in the pasture – helps high-producing cows drop in production prior to dry-off.

A real-time read-out during milking provides information that can help Lewis determine if any changes should be made to that cow’s computerized milking protocol.

Reporting system is thorough

The reporting system includes monitoring for mastitis through tracking changes in conductivity. This aspect of the report measures days in production, so if a cow drops in milk and has high conductivity, it will show up in the report sooner. Although Lewis rarely uses antibiotics, he’s careful to always enter treatment information into the computer prior to treating a cow. “The robot won’t know if they’re treated unless you enter the information,” he said, “and you might forget.”

Cows are comfortable and relaxed on sand bedding in the freestall barn. Although sand bedding can cause problems with robotic equipment, Lewis has found that the tradeoff in cow comfort is worth the minor inconveniences.

Lewis describes himself as a hands-on farmer, and likes knowing each cow. Although he isn’t milking cows, Lewis can now spend more time observing cows for heat, and noted that herd conception rate has improved. He relies on a nutritionist to develop a home-grown TMR to complement the pelleted concentrate cows receive during milking.

The system is configured to notify Lewis via cell phone if there’s a problem in the milking unit. “It’s usually something minor,” he said, adding that the proximity of his office to the AMS helps troubleshoot minor issues before they become major problems. “The chains that pull the teat cups off can become tangled. It will fail three cows before it stops and calls me.”

Lewis, Amy and family inside the 62-stall freestall barn with AMS.

When it comes to making mating decisions to select the type of cow that’s most suitable for an AMS, Lewis relies on his breeder. “We look for good mobility so cows can walk easily,” he said, adding that a professional hoof trimmer visits the farm several times a year to ensure good hoof health. “We also look for good teat placement. Rear teats that are too close is the biggest problem.”

Now that the herd is accustomed to the system, the barn is quiet and the animals are relaxed, which contributes to higher production and more opportunity to watch animals for heat and signs of illness. Although a robotic feed pusher was another option for the system, Lewis would rather push feed himself and use the time to observe the herd.

After adding the AMS, Amy and Lewis Horning found that they have more free time to spend with their young children.

One of the most appealing aspects of the AMS is that Lewis and Amy’s three young boys will grow up seeing their parents operate the farm without some of the inevitable stress that comes with dairy farming. “We wanted to do this to make farming attractive to them,” Lewis said. “We don’t want them to grow up feeling that they can’t get off the farm. We feel fortunate that the older generation was in favor of it and encouraged us. If they had been dragging their feet, it wouldn’t have been as easy to make the jump to new technology.

Cover photo courtesy bgblue/istock and Sally Colby.