by Jon M. Casey
At the open house and farm tour at the Center for Dairy Excellence, Joe Kooser was sharing his thoughts about his family farm’s upgrade to a robotic milking facility, featuring two, DeLaval VMS™ Robotic Milking systems. Joe explained to friends gathered nearby that his being able to attend this day’s events without worrying about the cows is one of the reasons that prompted him and his father Steve to switch to a robotic system after using a pipeline milking system for more than four decades.
Today, Joe and Steve are able to milk upwards of 120 cows. At the same time, they can do fieldwork as well as have free time to attend events.
As a seventh-generation farmer, Joe is excited about being able to pursue dairying at this same location. He said the farm began selling milk in the 1950s, starting with about 20 cows. Before that, the farm was a typical post-war farm where farming required a variety of activities, not only to feed the family, but also to provide income as well.
He said in the mid-1980s, his father Steve had made farming his career and together with Steve’s dad, they bought their first automatic take-off units. At that time, Steve was 27 years old. That was a significant event to him because it was when Joe turned 27 that he and Steve committed to the new barn and robotic milking equipment. “It’s ironic that we both made commitments to the dairy at the same age,” he said.
“I always planned to milk cows when I ‘grew up’, but it was my parent’s idea that I learn an off-farm trade that could serve me outside the realm of farming,” he said. “I moved to Florida and went to school for a year to learn to repair Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I then worked in a Harley shop for five years before returning to the farm. Learning what it is like to work for others was very valuable.”
Joe returned to the farm in 2008 and together with his dad, they milked in the old barn, filling it to capacity with approximately 60 head of milking cattle. He said when he and Steve agreed that he was going to make farming his career, they started looking at various kinds of milking parlors. They did the numbers and thought that increasing the herd size from 50 to about 120 or so would be an ideal situation for what they were planning. It was at that time, around 2009, that they started looking at robotic milking as a way to make their plans possible.
“We were farming about 200 acres, mostly hay, alfalfa and corn, and we did rotational grazing,” he said. “We increased our acreage and began to increase the herd size. We agreed that with the robots, we would not have to hire more employees, we could do it ourselves.”
“In 2010, we got our approval for the new facility and we began increasing the herd size so that we would be ready when the barn and everything was completed,” he said. “We were milking double shifts in the old barn at that time. In July 2011, we broke ground for the new building. By February 2012, we were ready to begin milking in the new barn, and on Feb. 29, we began moving cows into this barn.”
“Over time, we’ve increased the number of cows, with a goal of milking 120 cows,” he added. “We have enough capability to feed that number, and have some reserve storage capacity for feedstuffs, in case of a bad year. We are building the herd with our own heifers, and we are buying some replacements as well. We also are increasing our acreage as the circumstances allow for it, buy and renting land as it becomes available.”
Kooser said he especially likes the robots because it gives him extra time to watch over the cattle and to focus on breeding and herd improvement. He also has more time to manage the facility, scraping stalls twice per day, and doing bedding replacement weekly. “Maintaining the robots is easy compared to other methods. Twice per day, we clean the entire system at 4 a.m. and 5 p.m. Between those times, the machine cleans itself between each cow.”
“We do all AI,” he said. “We do all the breeding in the barn. We want to be as self-sufficient as possible. That is one of the keys to being a successful dairy farmer in my mind.”
They bed the cattle on cow mats covered with shavings. They are milking upwards of 70 pounds of milk per cow per day. Joe said it took some time to acclimate the cows to the milkers, but once they got used to the new environment, they have done fine. He said since some of them had attained “pet” status in their old locations, they expect similar treatment in this barn as well. Sometimes he accommodates them, sometimes not. “I want to manage the cows, not the other way around,” he said.
The cows get a TMR three times per day, with some grain pellets fed in the milking units. Higher producers receive more pellets; lower ones, less. The amounts are based on a production curve and regulated accordingly. He said their manure storage was increased to allow for doubling the herd. Now, they are able to spread manure when they want to, not because the Slurrystore is getting too full.
“We want to get better before we get bigger,” he concluded. “The barn was built so that it could be expanded when the time is right. We’ve been milking with robots for a year and one half, and we love it. It’s nice to have a Sunday off to spend time with family and go to church.”