Cold an extra challenge as Kegley Farms adopts new Lely robotic milking system

CM-MR-3-Cold 2by Karl H. Kazaks

PULASKI, VA — “We knew it was going to be a transition,” said Bill Kegley. “The cold weather has made it that much more of a challenge.”

On Oct. 22, Kegley Farms opened a new milking barn with four Lely Astronaut milkers. Since then, the farm — like much of eastern part of the nation — has experienced a number of unusually cold days, with air temperatures dropping on several occasions to below zero.

The low temperatures have made operation of the automated milkers somewhat difficult, said Martin Kegley, who together with his brother-in-law Jeff Reaves is in charge of the daily operation of the farm.

At low temperatures, the flexible ropes which connect the milkers from the Lely Astronaut arm to the udder of a cow stiffen. Kegley and Reaves have placed portable propane heaters adjacent to each Lely unit to keep the ropes pliable.

Because this part of southwestern Virginia doesn’t regularly experience such cold weather, the barn was built with side-wall curtains and without roof insulation. The design will help keep the barn cool during warmer months, but when the air temperatures is -8 degrees F it also lets the interior of the barn get cool enough to compel the use of portable heaters.

The Kegley family decided to invest in their new facilities because their old barn — 35 years old — “needed a lot of work,” said Martin. They decided to install the automated system because of the difficulty, he added “of finding help that wants to milk.”

“The goal is to not have to have anybody here,” to assist with the milking.

The dairy is the second in Virginia to use robotic milkers, the first being the Leeches’ Ingleside Dairy outside of Lexington.

For now, Kegley, Reaves, and their team — including long-time herdsman Danny Huff — are still training their cows to get used to the milking system.

“We’re still putting in time fetching cows to get milked,” Martin said.

Many of the cows have already deciphered the system. The feed pellets they get at the milkers help with that.

Cows get to the milkers by passing through a one-way gate from the freestall area. The Lely system then recognizes whether a cow is ready to be milked. If she has been there too recently, she will be allowed to pass through, with no pellets given. If she is ready to be milked, the system will dispense a batch of pellets, the amount of which is determined by how long it has been since the last time she was milked.

“It’s a fine line to make sure the cows get enough feed but not too much,” Martin said.

At present, the herd’s average milking frequency is 2.7x. At their old barn — which the family still uses to milk cows close to drying off — the Kegleys practice 2x milking. Once the cows become familiar with the system in the new barn, the Kegley family hopes to be averaging a 3x frequency, with some high producers even achieving 5x.

The new dairy has about 30 fewer cows than the old dairy. “If we can get the same production out of fewer cows — the same with 240 that we had been making with 270 — we’ll be tickled,” Martin said.

Soon the dairy will be using recycled bedding from its own composting facility, which has three separate bays for composting solids (which arrive via conveyor from the separator). Underneath the compost piles — set in channels in the concrete pad — are pipes which act as ductwork for air blown into the material above to help with the composting process.

Eventually, the farm hopes to have a surplus of bedding material, and use some of it for bedded pack housing.

Bill Kegley moved to this area in 1967, when his home farm near Verona was taken as part of the construction of Interstate 81. Today, in addition to the dairy, the farm also has a sizeable cow-calf herd.

“We’re still learning,” the family patriarch said, describing the first few months of using the robotic milkers.

“It’ll be easier when we start freshening cows that have been in here,” Martin added.

“We will be fine long-term,” Bill said. “It just takes a while to get established.”

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