The robotic technology pioneered in western Europe in the 1990s is helping a Rockbridge County, Virginia couple boost production and efficiency in their 110-cow dairy operation, cut labor costs and bring an asset to the milking parlor other producers are in short supply: time.
Stephanie and Robert Whipple own 150 acres and rent another 130 acres from Robert’s father. Their aim is to piece back together as much of the original homestead as possible. They are one of six dairies in Rockbridge County, VA.
Employees quitting just before a predawn milking spurred the couple, Virginia Tech business and dairy science graduates, to explore and implement two Lely Astronaut robotic milking systems in a new barn at Rock Bottom Farm designed to accommodate the high-tech machines.
The Whipples, like many producers, found they had little extra time for herd health and development, or improvements to infrastructure, much less a bit of leisure.
Robotics equate to more efficiency, added production and reduced labor with fewer employees than traditional parlor milking.
The new technology, installed earlier this year, also enables Stephanie to comfortably fit in a full-time job off the farm at a brewery nearby.
In an industry noted for arduous hours, the computerized robots may actually enable the Whipples, who met through mutual friends and married about a decade ago, to take a weekend off or focus on other aspects of the longtime family business, such as herd health and genetics, stock diversification and more.
“It starts to take a toll, getting up at four and not finishing until eight [at night],” said Robert, whose grandparents established the farm. The Whipples took over the operation in 2009. Before robotics, “our hours were very long and rigid.” Milk output is currently 65,000 lbs. per week.
Rock Bottom Farm’s herd went robotic on Feb. 27. The cows began training on the machines that day and adapted very well, the couple reported. To maximize the robotic system and implement a clean sand bedding and cleaning system for their cattle, the couple opted for a new 244-foot-long barn designed by Red Barn Agricultural Architects of Pennsylvania rather than retrofitting their existing barn. Country Line Construction served as contractor for the project. The new barn includes a convenient office with kitchen and restroom, plus covered deck. Additionally, the barn allows room for future herd expansion, Robert explained. They also plan to add a Lely Juno automatic feeding system to push feed up to the cows and continue upgrades as needed.
“Now we use sand for bedding, which the cows really like.” The sand, added every 10 days for the purchase price of $5 a ton, is trucked in from about 100 miles away from the farm.
“It’s a positive experience for them,” said Stephanie of the milking, which the animals associate with the experience of being fed. One robot serves 60 cows a day. The old parlor handled 41 animals, milking them twice a day.
Before they decided to go robotic, the Whipples visited several other farms in Pennsylvania and Virginia that had already successfully implemented the system.
“They gave us a lot of ideas on how to set up our new barn. It was good to hear how they’d done it,” said Robert of the other producers. “The cows were so calm and relaxed. They don’t associate people with stress.”
After the initial investment, which varies depending on number of units and accompanying equipment, robots quickly pay for themselves. Robots in the dairy barn are becoming a major force in the industry, cutting labor costs, employee health insurance, room and board, overtime, worker’s compensation and insurance.
As a cow enters the milking chute, the robot reads the sensor on her collar and determines if she is due for milking. If the cow is not, the front gate opens and the cow exits. If it’s her time to milk, the gate closes, a feed reward is provided and a mechanical arm moves into place to start the milking process. Lasers scan and map teats to precisely affix teat cups. With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. A computer charts milking speed, amount and quality of milk produced, frequency of visits to the machine, how much the cow has eaten, heat detection (for breeding management), rumen function and more. Software programs track details such as weight, breeding cycle status, milk yield, milk quality and milking time for each animal.
Before milking, orange and white brushes clean the udders to remove dirt and other materials that might contaminate milk. The brushes also stimulate the cow to let down her milk. As milk flows to the collection jar, it is analyzed for quality using colorimetric and conductivity sensors. Teat cups drop off automatically when milk flow is no longer detected. When all four quarters are milked, the gate opens and the cow walks out. Data collected by the robot can be accessed on the monitor on the machine or from any farm monitor or wireless device. Information can be viewed for individual animals, groups of animals or the entire herd.
The robots wash and sanitize themselves between each cow and shut down two times a day for a more thorough cleaning to ensure sanitary milk collection. Cows average 3.2 visits to the robots every day.
If the system isn’t functioning properly, the computer is programmed to call the couple’s cell phones and alert them to problems.
So far, Robert noted, the system has been easy to maintain and troubleshoot, and company technical support is available around the clock, he said.
“Many repairs can be done by the farmer. Before, when a vacuum pump went out in the morning, it ruined the whole day. Not now,” he added. “We plan to continue upgrades. You can customize your system to fit your individual needs. We’re planning to implement a Juno to push feed up to the cows.”