Equipment and feed dealers, dairy producers and other industry representatives gathered at two Berks County, Pennsylvania farms for an in-depth exploration of precision technology. Hosted at the Stutzman family’s Lehigh Creek Farm in Mertztown and Cornerview Farm in Kutztown, attendees received a close-up look at the use of automation on mid-sized family dairy farms.
Andy Young, Business Development Manager at Cargill, the program sponsor, was on hand to talk to producers. Charlie Gardner, DVM, formerly of Cargill and now an independent industry consultant, organized the meeting. Gardner remains committed to assisting educating Pennsylvania’s dairy producers about new technologies, which may help to make their dairies viable now and into the future.
“The goal is to get producers talking to producers,” Young said. These events allow dairyman to “get a full picture of all inventions available in the industry.”
The Stutzman farm spotlighted the AMS Galaxy robotic milking system, and a new free stall barn design. Cornerview Farm, owned by the Biehl family, entered into a partnership with AMS Galaxy, and operates a training center where producers and dealers can come to learn all about the company’s automated technology. Automatic calf feeders, feed pushers, automatic bedding systems and robotic milkers, along with AMS Total Farm Automation systems for cow comfort and health, are in operation here.
Changes in herd management
The Stutzman’s matriarch greeted visitors with an overview of the farm’s history. A dairywoman for many years, Mrs. Stutzman enthralled visitors with stories of the good old days of the dairy, which the family purchased in 1972. Cows needed to be herded twice per day to the milking parlor, where they were milked in three in-and-out stalls. An A-frame stone barn had two rows of tail-to-tail freestalls, and was later joined by a round roof barn with a theater down the middle and 18 freestalls down each side.
“We got to see the drawbacks of this system,” Mrs. Stutzman said.
After leaving dairy for a brief period beginning in 1986, the family began purchasing heifers again in 1992. “High maintenance” facilities continued to make daily tasks labor-intensive. Barns were too close together, snow pack would form between the two buildings, and ventilation was poor. They fed and scraped manure by hand. A new 2005 slotted floor heifer barn offered some improvement, but by 2014, Stutzman, along with sons Mike and Matt, daughter-in-law Stephanie, decided that repairs were too costly, and new facilities were the only answer.
Looking originally at freestall and parlor options, the family also visited several area dairies that had installed robotic milkers. After talking with these farmers, as well as equipment dealers, the family opted to install AMS Galaxy Astrea robots.
The new 100-stall freestall facility, complete with the Astrea’s two milking boxes, allows the dairy — now milking about 80 head — to increase the milking herd up to 120, although they will opt to keep density at about 110. During demolition and construction, the family continued to milk, keeping the herd on pasture, and fetching them to the milk parlor, which by then had eight in-and-out stalls.
Along with the new barn, NRCS demolished the old 1970s era earthen lagoon — although it had no issues — in favor of more modern manure storage. A stream bank crossing to decrease damage from the cows was also installed, via an EQUIP grant. The family also opted to preserve the farm, in conjunction with the decision to add robotic milkers, which made continuing the dairy for future generations a realistic option.
The new facility was completed in November 2015, and the first year has seen many benefits. The learning curve for utilizing the robots wasn’t too steep for cows or people. The freestalls, bedded with foam mats and straw, offer enhanced cow comfort. The cows can readily access the feed bunk, stalls, the automatic brush, fresh water or the robots at will. Recycled rubber mats in the alleys and an automatic manure scraper keep cows on even footing — although icing has been a bit of a problem in the winter. Large fans provide circulation, and curtains allow much-improved airflow when compared with the old facilities.
“I want cow comfort,” Mrs. Stutzman said, a priority when designing the new freestall facility.
The herd milks an average of 2.7 times per day. Data alerting the family to which cows did not attach, or which ones may have kicked off a quarter, allow them to follow up. They can program the robots, entering parameters such as how often to milk various individual cows. The robots records data on each cow, via a leg transponder.
Robot maintenance has not been much of a concern, with Mike handling much of the routine care on his own, and Galaxy representatives providing service calls at routine intervals every few months. Pens at the front of the barn offer easy access to the robot, as well as human access to the cows, for animals which require special attention.
All the data
Mrs. Stutzman — a computer novice — was able to learn to use the programs she needed to conduct her part of the daily responsibilities. While her heat detection skills, honed over many decades, are as good as the information sent from the robot’s computers, she is able to incorporate the computer data for optimal reproduction and herd health.
“She normally picks it up before it does,” Stephanie said, emphasizing the robot’s data collection is very accurate. The computer is “not hard at all,” even for computer novices.
Other data includes the deviations, which are “the first screen we look at each morning,” she said. This way, they can milk those who didn’t attach for various reasons, fetch those who haven’t milked in over 12 hours, and examine anyone whose data, such as conductivity, indicates a possible concern.
Despite the use of robotic milkers, the family still milks about 10 cows per day. They don’t cull for inability to attach to the robot, so cows whose udders don’t conform are still milked here. Some of their older cows are resistant to the robot, and they fetch those as needed to lead them into the robotic milking boxes.
Producers toured the barn facilities, examined the robotic milkers, educated themselves about the computer data generated by the robots, and — most importantly — received a real life view of how the robots, in conjunction with the new free stall barn, are working for one dairy family. The Stutzman’s were on hand to answer all questions honestly, discussing the pros and cons of the decisions they made, what they love, and what they might have done differently in retrospect.
“It was very helpful to visit them,” Mrs. Stutzman said of the dairy farms they visited — with parlors as well as with robots — before finalizing their farm’s robotic milking plans, and the family wanted to offer the same opportunity with others.