Brad and Brooke Biehl, and their young children joined his family’s dairy operation and found a way of making it viable for the next generation. The farm consists of 230 acres, with 120 milking, 125 young stock and 25 dry cows in the herd. Biehl, an engineer who has a natural affinity for technology, joined the dairy full-time in 2014, and forged a partnership with AMS Galaxy USA.
The Biehl’s Corner View Farm, in Kutztown, PA, was the first installation of the AMS Galaxy Astrea 20.20 robotic milking system in the United States. It is now a training center for the manufacturer’s automated, precision dairy products. A 120 stall, three-row, 230 by 64 foot freestall facility, complete with an Astrea 20.20 Automatic Milking System, was built several years ago, followed by a new calf barn. Add in the latest in automation, and the cows at Corner View Farm are comfortable, friendly, and generate a lot of data.
The Astrea 20.20 robot consists of one milking arm, which serves two milking boxes, and is designed to milk up to 130 cows with one robot. Cows are outfitted with a leg transponder, which collects data on the cows while they are in the robot.
Some of those reports include the attachment time, the milking speed, cow refusals to be milked, amount of milk, feed intake, conductivity of the teat quarters, and frequency of robot visits.
Biehl closely monitors data to detect any issues that drive the robot’s “free time” down. Cows that take too long to milk, or that don’t attach quickly, negatively impact the milking capacity. Robot maintenance also needs to be performed regularly to optimize efficiency. Keeping cows clean and singeing udders decreases milking time, too.
“We want the right cows on the robot. All of these little pieces are extremely important,” Biehl said. “What are the variables that are driving the free time down?”
Free time on the robot means that lower ranking animals have better opportunities to milk, reducing labor needs as cows don’t need to be fetched. In his free flow barn design, cows are not guided into the robot using gates, but can access it — as well as the stalls or the feed — at any time. In a free flow design, it is the feed, fed through the robot, that entices the cows to milk. Pellets fed at the robot are balanced with a partial mixed ration (PMR) at the feed bunk.
The PMR at Corner View Farm consists of corn silage, high moisture corn, haylage, and triticale silage. The cows are also fed through the robot, either with pellets made from a combination of corn, wheat, barley, soymeal and sugar, or from soy grown on the farm and roasted and ground up to be fed through the robot.
“I like the performance” of the soy, Biehl said. “It feeds well. Cows like the roasted beans.”
Some of the cows at Corner View provide data via a neck collar as well as the standard leg transponders. These collars are a part of the AMS Galaxy Heat – Herd – Health Activity Monitoring System. The neck collar provides data in “real time,” not only when the cow is in the robot, Biehl explained. Producers can purchase any of the “H’s” individually, or as a complete herd-monitoring package.
“Finding cows in a large group can take time. (The GPS) is very accurate,” he said of the systems herd portion, which deals with cow positioning.
Heat monitoring via cow activity helps to accurately detect breeding windows and can increase the herd’s pregnancy rate, while the health monitoring records data on chewing. The data on chewing is not rumination data. Instead, the cows are monitored for number of chews per day, length of chewing periods, and an alert is sent if the cow’s chewing behavior drops below its individually determined threshold.
“The chewing definitely seems to be the first indicator of health problems,” Biehl said.
It’s not just the herd that is being monitored at Corner View Farm. The farm is a showplace for automation. This includes automatic cow misters, lighting, thermostats and rain sensors, fans and grooming brushes. Biehl is able to view the facility, monitor data and control function from his phone, using apps, or from the farm’s computers.
“Everything is programmed,” he said.
AMS Galaxy’s bedding robot fills the stall beds twice per day, adding 0.7 cubic feet of bedding material per day to each stall. Bedding consists of a 50-50 mix of kiln dried sawdust and soy stubble, to which lime is occasionally added.
The bedding robot runs on a monorail, located over the tops of the stalls. It drops the bedding both over the neck rail as well on the other side of the stall. If cows are in the stall, they simply shake the bedding off and it falls into place. It is possible to use sand in this system. The key is to use materials that can flow in the hopper. The hopper, located outside of the barn, is filled every morning with fresh bedding for the robot to spread. The speed of the bedding robot can be changed, and it can fill up to 450 stalls per day.
The automatic feed pusher pushes feed five times per day. A recessed feed bunk does help to contain the feed so the cows can easily reach it, so “it doesn’t really have to work as hard as it can,” Biehl said of the robot.
Urban CalfMom Paula automatic calf feeders round out the automation on the dairy farm. The family feeds waste whole milk through the feeders. Whole milk balancer, which increases the dry matter content, can be added. The milk is warmed in the feeder. Milk is brought to the unit in pails, three times per day. Calves can consume up to eight liters per day, and are in pens with the automatic feeder for 56 days. The feeder cleans itself twice per day.
The use of automation fits nicely into the mission of the Biehl’s dairy. Healthy and clean cows, a comfortable and safe work environment, and growth for future viability are all reasons why automation has been adapted here.